The damned and the saved

THE WAY foreigners enter a country speaks volumes about both their own homeland and the country they want to visit.

THE WAY foreigners enter a country speaks volumes about both their own homeland and the country they want to visit.

People receive impressions and are assigned a status right at the border: some are tourists welcomed with open arms; some are exchange students, made to sign a declaration promising to return to their own country; some are refugees who no longer have their own country.

Some are crossing the border under cover of darkness at a place where noone will check their passport: often they don’t even have one; and if they do, they would not be likely to receive a stamp granting them legal status.

Visas are much more than just stamps in passports: they reflect the dynamics between countries and also the challenges that nations face.

Yet, the absence of visas can have greater significance for a country than their existence.

United States President George W. Bush announced on October 17 that his country will no longer require citizens of six formerly communist European countries, among them Slovakia, plus South Korea to apply for visas in order to visit as tourists.

The ongoing discussion about visas has undoubtedly been an important part of relations between Slovakia and the United States.

Diplomats on both sides have been virtually unable to avoid the visa question in interviews or other interactions with the public. Visas even made it onto the agenda of the first-ever visit of a U.S. President to Slovakia back in 2005, when the Slovak government requested a „better visa policy for Slovakia”.

Besides this, liberalisation of US visa policies towards the European Union’s newer members has been very much a live issue within the EU, with some countries criticising the union for not being more assertive in negotiating a unified approach for all its members.

There are walls that can come down overnight, but political and psychological walls can take decades to dissolve.

These walls need to be taken apart brick by brick and they need to be dismantled on both sides. Entry to the Schengen zone removed one of the last remaining bricks from the wall separating Slovakia from the old European Union countries.

The cancellation of the visa regime with the United States is another.

While most Slovak state officials have acknowledged both the practical and the symbolic importance of this act, Prime Minister Robert Fico declined to celebrate.

“I don’t see anything special about it and I don’t understand why everybody is so excited,” he said at a short briefing on October 17. “I think there must be balance in international relations, whether countries are big or small.”

It is unlikely that there was any hidden message behind Fico’s lines, intended for the United States or its representatives.

This was a message for his voters, indeed a message typical for politicians who like to play on the frustrations of part of the populations of small nations, suggesting that they will not “bow” to anyone.

And yet acts such as waiving visas and presidential handshakes always happen in a political context and, understandably, there will always be politicians who want to glue these acts into their little political albums hoping that the voters will remember them when the time comes.

In the light of this logic Slovak President Ivan Gašparovič might reap some of the PR fruit from this event, though among all the diplomatic efforts and time Slovakia has invested in getting U.S. visas cancelled his share is relatively negligible.

And, given the short-term memory of voters, by the presidential elections next year in which Gašparovič will almost certainly run for re-election, few are likely to remember that it was he who heard the good news from the president of the United States.

Fortunately, Slovaks can now overlook all the political bargaining surrounding this act and simply take it for what it is: another confirmation that Slovakia is recognised as a normal democratic country from which people do not have a reason to flee en masse to the United States - or any other country for that matter - and work there illegally.

They no longer have to stand in line, or hang around in embassy waiting rooms to get a number and then face interview – a process which, no matter how much effort is invested in removing the impression of moral judgement, still retains about it an unpleasant whiff of the damned and the saved.

Some might argue that at the arrival halls in foreign countries, immigration officers still ask travellers where they are going or why.

But that is part of a globalised world where people travel for different reasons and with different intentions, and countries want to retain control over whom they let in.

Besides, one day Slovakia might face some pressing visa questions too: for example if businesses continue to call for more qualified labour and the country is forced to change its immigration policies in order to let in more from abroad.

Or by making it easier for some countries to do business here by easing visa duties for countries further east.

When all is said and done, it is a good thing that visas are not waived or retained based only on statements made by politicians.

Given Slovakia’s spectrum of political opinion, the country might otherwise have had to wait for a few more years yet.

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