A few hours after a suicide bomb attack on a Polish military compound killed 11 people in southern Iraq last week, a young man in Warsaw named Gustaw failed in his third attempt to get the United States consulate there to grant him a tourist visa to visit America.
Twelve Polish soldiers were among those wounded in the attack in the Iraqi town of Hillah — an attack which coalition military officials view as a part of an insurgent campaign to force Poland and other smaller members of the Iraq coalition to pay a price for their fealty to Washington.
Gustaw, whose brother is one of 2,300 soldiers Poland sent to Iraq to support the U.S.-led coalition there, says his blood boils when he thinks of the risk his brother is taking even as an American bureaucrat refuses his request to visit America.
“Is this the thanks we get?” asks the 23-year-old, requesting that his surname remain anonymous to protect his brother. “Two Poles have died there, and for what? We’re treated like Nigerians or Egyptians, and you let the French and the Germans waltz in without visas.”
A greasy pole
The visa debate is just Poland's part of a gripe common to allies stood by Washington. Whether the issue is Iraq's transition to sovereignty or contracts to rebuild its shattered infrastructure, the Brits, Danes, Dutch, Aussies, Spanish, Italians and Bulgarians have precious little influence and even less to point to when their electorates ask them for proof that the war was worth the blood of their compatriots. "Democracy in Iraq" does not necessarily cut it with the average Joe, Josef or Jose.
Poland's government takes heat on the question of post-war contracts, too. But it is the visa issue that really angers people.
The U.S. State Department currently lists 27 countries on its “visa waiver” list – France and Germany, the Iraq war’s most vocal opponents, among them. Most of the countries are in western Europe or particularly wealthy – Singapore, Japan, Brunei.
The list contains some surprises – Ireland, for instance, which in recent years has seen its economy surge and the number of Irish overstaying their visas to work in America plummet. Then again, neither South Korea nor Israel, two relatively affluent, close allies, is on the list.
Inclusion in the privileged visa waiver club is not arbitrary, according to Stuart Patt, spokesman for State Department bureau of consular affairs. Rather, it is automatic if a nation meets certain criteria. The key is the rate of rejections suffered by any country’s visa applicants – the percentage of total visa applicants that State Department consular officials abroad determine to be more interested in working illegally in America than visiting the Mall of America in Minneapolis. If the visa rejection rate drops below 3 percent, you’re in like Flynn.
“That depends generally on the applicants ability to show evidence that they intend to return home,” says Patt. “The most common reason for visa refusal is that the consular officer does not think you’re going to come back and that you’ll overstay your allotted time take unauthorized employment. And There are statistics to suggest that Poles do this more than many other Europeans.”
The question of Poland’s visa status may not seem to rank up there with the planting of democracy’s seeds in the Middle East or the routing of al-Qaida from southwest Asia. But for Poles, the perception that they are being treated as second class allies even after standing up for America in Europe is widespread.
Poland’s President Aleksander Kwasniewski raised the issue with President Bush during a Washington visit in late January, hoping at least to win a pledge that the policy would be reviewed. No such promises were forthcoming.
“As far as I know nothing has happened,” says Artur Michalski, press counselor at Poland’s embassy in Washington. “There was some talk of setting up a high-level commission to look into creating an appeal process, but we have not heard of anything moving forward.”
Back in Warsaw, in the wake of Bush’s refusal to change things by fiat, the visa issue has grown from a policy footnote to a festering insult.
“Politically, it’s a disaster,” says Janusz Reiter, a former Polish ambassador to Germany. “If they don’t change it, it will be first challenge to Polish-American friendship since the communists fell, and it will play right into the hands of those who want to make sure Poland never again plays the American card in Europe.”
Even if the White House is unmoved, the Congress is still in play. Earlier this month, a Connecticut Republican, Rep. Nancy Johnson, introduced a bill to end visa requirements for Poland – an idea fast gaining support in an election year from both Democrats and Republicans whose districts contain some of the estimated nine million Americans of Polish descent.
Johnson hails from New Britain, an industrial town with a significant number of Polish-Americans and a Roman Catholic church that celebrates mass in Polish. Touting her bill in a Polish restaurant last week, Johnson said eliminating visa requirements “would united Polish families in New Britain with their Polish family and friends more easily and strengthen ties between our two nations.”
One group of Poles who would be ecstatic is the government of Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller. The inability of Poland’s government to turn its pro-U.S. stance in the Iraq war into something the average Pole can identify as payback is one of several issues dragging down Miller’s Democratic Left Alliance – the very government that agreed to take command of an entire district of Iraq to relieve pressure on American and British forces. Recent polls show Miller’s party would be trounced if elections were held today.
Scandals and stubborn unemployment lay at the root of the governing party’s problems. But the perception in Warsaw is that the Bush administration, which consistently has rejected Polish pleas to be added to the short list of states exempt from U.S. visa regulations, is not doing much to help its loyal ally.
In a typical observation, one Polish newspaper columnist pointed out sardonically that alleged shoe bomber Richard Reid, a British subject, required no visa but Solidarity founder Lech Walesa would be photographed, finger-printed and charged $100 – if his visa were approved.
Missing the point
The State Department and other Bush administration officials say such arguments miss the point. They point out that Poland’s military is receiving additional financial support from the U.S., encourages investment there and that Washington consistently takes Poland’s side in arguments at the International Monetary Fund and other financial institutions involved in helping Poland’s economic transformation.
“The visa rules really are primarily about preventing economic migrants from gaining entry,” says Patt of the consular affairs bureau. “Security plays a role. But there are a lot of things about Poland that indicate they have a high number of economic migrants.”
Indeed, even Poland’s embassy concedes that a significant number of Poles overstay their student or tourist visas and try to catch on in the U.S. economy.
“No one has exact figures, but I’m told the rate of rejections (for Poles seeking visas) is about 30 percent,” an embassy official says. “That is tied to the number of people who overstay their visas. But I think the problem is exaggerated.
As proof, the official notes that German fears of being overwhelmed with Poles seeking jobs when the border between the two countries opened up in the 1990s were not realized. “Germany was afraid there would be some kind of flood of Poles,” the official says. “No such thing has happened.”
In the end, Poles believe there should be some kind of consideration made for shedding their blood.
“You have to remember, sending troops to Iraq was not a popular move, though it didn’t kick up the opposition here that it did in western Europe,” says Reiter. “Now you have to imagine people in Poland who are subject to this new regime – not only tougher standards for a visa, but a new higher fee and fingerprints even if you get one. So Poles have to accept this, but not people from France, Germany or Belgium. So naturally people are asking, ‘This is our reward for our commitment to the Iraq war? This is how they treat us?'”