Czech lobby in Washington takes a second seat to Poland

Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, photo: CTK

For nearly all of his term as Foreign Minister, Cyril Svoboda has been trying to attain visa-free relations between the Czech Republic and Canada, and most recently he stepped-up the Czech lobby in the halls of Washington, D.C. But now it seems that the Czech Republic has been upstaged by the Poles, who have the best chance yet of seeing their visa requirements for the United States fall by the wayside.

Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice,  photo: CTK
Last week the American Senate passed an amendment regarding eligibility for the Visa Waiver Program, as part of the immigration reform legislation currently under debate by the U.S. government. If the legislation is approved, it means that Poland could soon qualify for visa-free status in relations with the United States, but according to the proposed criteria, the Czech Republic would not automatically qualify. All of this came to light after Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda's two-day working visit to the United States, and the issue has been a matter of discussion in the Czech Republic.

There are three criteria that countries must fulfil in order to qualify for the proposed amendment to the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. The first is membership in the European Union; secondly, they must be allies in the war in Iraq or in Afghanistan, contributing at least 300 soldiers to the effort; and lastly, of course, the given country can not pose a security risk to the United States. While Poland meets all these requirements, the Czech Republic is lagging in the number of soldiers it's contributing to the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet, there is a catch to this point. In total, the Czech Republic actually has more than 300 people in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are 96 serving in Iraq, and 220 in Afghanistan, but about 100 of those in Afghanistan are part of an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission under the United Nations, and these do not count according to the American criteria. In other words, Poland is the only new EU-member country which has been lobbying for a visa waiver, and clearly fulfils all the requirements.

Czech Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek has said that the Czech Republic will not increase its military presence abroad in order to meet the new criteria. Given that the Czech elections are just over a week away, it is doubtful that such a move would happen anytime soon.

At least formally, the Czech Foreign Ministry seems pleased with the recent developments. Minister Svoboda has said that it's most important that there is now some movement on the visa issue in Washington, and Prime Minister Paroubek has made it clear that if Poland achieves visa-clear status, Prague will push for the same, perhaps with much better chances at success than recent years of efforts have afforded.

Of course some critics have pointed to these developments in Washington as a failure of Czech foreign policy, which has been pushing for reciprocal visa relations for quite some time. It is the case that the Polish success is the result of heavy lobbying in Congress, and the Poles have a much larger émigré community in America than do the Czechs. In any case, the recent news could be very good for Czechs as well, provided that the bill is approved by the Senate and the House of Representatives.