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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Ambassador Unveils Visa Streamlining Process

Saying he does not want the American Embassy "portrayed as an ugly, Soviet-style bureaucracy," U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering announced several changes Wednesday in how the consular staff will grant visas to Russians.

The alterations are designed to streamline the visa application process, which sometimes results in more than 500 Russians a day streaming through the U.S. Embassy in search of permission to visit the United States.

The embassy has received angry complaints from Russians who accuse the consular staff of rudeness. While Pickering defended the conduct of his staff, he said he hoped the changes would make the procedure less burdensome on applicants and the consulate.

One change calls for Russians to be charged a $20 application processing fee starting Thursday. New changes include:

?The embassy will open an express lane to will handle seven categories of applications that will not require interviews. Russians who have already held American visas, for example, would qualify for the express lane. Other categories will continue to require interviews. There had been previous reports that interviews would be eliminated.

?Beginning Thursday, the embassy will accept visa applications for business travel from a number of travel agencies that are internationally known. Pickering did not specify which travel agencies.

?Additional personnel are being sent from Washington to help deal with the overflow of applications.

Embassy officials insist they must treat every visa applicant as a potential immigrant and must resort to interviews and detailed questionnaires as a screening device, since 15 to 20 percent of visa recipients stay in the United States beyond their allotted time.

When pressed, Pickering defended his embassy: "I in no way see our visa process as inconsistent" with principles of open travel, he said. And while he agreed that free travel to the United States is a human right -- just as Russians insist it is a human right to leave their country -- Pickering added: "It is not a human right to immigrate to the United States."

Additional changes in the visa process, though, are still distant. For example, Pickering would like to see more Russians apply for multiple-entry visas, rather than returning to the embassy for each trip. For that to happen, multiple-entry visas must be less expensive. But the price of visas is controlled by a bilateral agreement between the United States and Russia, under which buying a multiple-entry visa is no more cost-effective than buying a single-entry visa.