Why do Czechs need a visa to travel to the United States while US citizens only need a passport to visit the Czech Republic? This is a question that comes up again and again. The US authorities have two main answers: the terrorist attacks of September 2001 have led to a stricter visa policy to protect national security; secondly the number of Czechs who enter the United States on a tourist visa to work there illegally is estimated at tens of thousands and has to be regulated. Both arguments sound pretty convincing, but some Czechs are not willing to give up without a fight and are looking for ways of persuading the US authorities to lift the visa requirement.
"We want the Czech Republic to be in a visa waiver free status. We encourage Czechs - young and old - to come to the United States and we are trying our best under our law, as it now stands, to make it happen."
But the law does not grant a country visa waiver status if over 3% of its visa applicants are refused. Last year, 35,000 Czechs applied for a visa; around 4,000 (some 11 percent) were refused. So, to expect any changes within the next few months - or even years - is rather optimistic. And yet, the issue is back in discussion, triggered by the following recent statement by Christian Democrat Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda:
"Just as our citizens go through the agonizing procedure at airports in the United States where they are asked all sorts of questions, US citizens should be subjected to the same procedure here. We have a strong suspicion that our regulations are being violated en masse. Many people, who are here without a visa, as tourists, are actually working here and staying longer than the 90 days permitted. With the introduction of new measures, this would come to light. Let's stamp their passports to know exactly when someone came into the country and when the person left; to monitor their period of stay closely."
For Czechs, the visa application process costs around 3,000 crowns or a little over 120 US dollars and usually lasts about a month. Applicants are interviewed and refused if they fail to convince officials that they would return to the Czech Republic after the term of the visa is up. The prime minister, Social Democrat Jiri Paroubek, understands the concerns of Czech citizens but stresses that the country should be careful about calls for reciprocal measures:
"This is disadvantageous...we would just damage ourselves. Last year 300,000 US tourists came to the Czech Republic. We want that number to reach 370,000 this year. A fortnight ago, we invested tens of millions of crowns into marketing activities with the American Society of Travel Agents [ASTA]. So, our goal is to attract as many American tourists as possible because they, just like the Japanese tourists, are the biggest spenders of all. So it would be unwise to damage the economic interests of the Czech Republic."
When Foreign Minister Svoboda visited the United States in July 2004, his then US counterpart Colin Powell stressed that the decision on the visa waiver status was in the hands of Congress. So, can members of Congress and the Senate be persuaded to waive the visa requirements for Czech citizens? A rising number of influential communities and supporters of the Czech Republic in the United States believe it's worth a try. Czech Ambassador to Washington, Petr Kolar:
"We have people with Czech ancestry here, who are very supportive. There are also some organisations such as the American Friends of the Czech Republic, and many others. But we also have people who are of no Czech descent. The think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Endowment for Democracy have sent a letter to members of Congress and Senators. The American Jewish community has sent a letter to members of Congress and Senators as well. We also have supporters among the Cuban community."
One of them is Frank Calzon, Executive Director of the Centre for a Free Cuba in Washington. But why is an organisation that was founded to fight for a free Cuba engaged in advocacy on behalf of the Czech Republic?
"The issue of visas in Central Europe is, of course, an important issue particularly because the Czech Republic and the Czech people and leaders like President Havel have a wonderful image in the United States as friends of America and supporters of freedom everywhere in the world. We are engaged in advocacy and we talk to the media, members of Congress, to other governments, and what we are working on right now is to encourage the administration to treat the Czechs, the Poles, the Hungarians and others just like the French or the Spanish or any other Europeans."
What would you recommend the Czech Republic to do in order to change the situation?
"I think the Czech Republic has the advantage of having two very professional and influential ambassadors. One is the Ambassador to the White House here in Washington and the other is the Ambassador to the United Nations in New York. They have lots of friends and there also is a Czech community in the United States. So I think that the Czech people and the government need to talk about the issue, and talk to Americans who have business interests in the Czech Republic and in general encourage the American government to review and reappraise the current visa situation in light of the Czechs' support for America and the disparity in treatment between some European nations and others."
Of the ten newest EU members only Slovenia meets the criteria set by the US authorities. In hopes of achieving a no-visa status more easily within the framework of the European Union, Poland and the Czech Republic have been urging Brussels, especially the 15 members prior to the last expansion, to lobby the United States on their behalf. Jan Zahradil is a Czech member of the European Parliament for the opposition Civic Democrats. Latest opinion polls suggest his right-of-centre party will win the general elections in June. So, will the Civic Democrats push for visa-free status, and what can Brussels do to help?
"I wouldn't say that it would be priority number one when it comes to relations with the United States. The only thing that might work is to try to trigger a common approach of the European Union. If it doesn't work at all then we can try and do something with our neighbours - with other new member countries of the European Union, first of all with Poland, Hungary and Slovakia and we will see whether we can achieve some results."
How is it looking in Brussels right now?
"We can examine in reality whether such a thing like the highly praised European solidarity between the old and the new member states really exists. If the old member states will not join us when it comes to this particular issue, then we will have certain evidence that European solidarity is nice rhetoric but is not accompanied by any real steps."
What would you expect the old EU members to do, what kind of pressure can they really put on the United States?
"Well, the only pressure that they can put would be political pressure. I cannot imagine that they would be able to threaten the United States with imposing visa duty on them. Let's be realistic."
So it looks as though the visa debate will continue, whoever wins the Czech parliamentary elections in June. For the time being there are few signs that the US administration might be about to change its mind.
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