Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 192

Despite the bland statements of assurance issued on October 17, there were indications over the weekend that the two countries are continuing to stumble on the thorniest issue confronting them–the dispute over ownership of the southern Kuril Islands–and that this obstacle is impeding efforts to finalize a peace treaty. According to a Russian press report, Japanese officials intimated before the weekend talks that they are becoming concerned over what they say is footdragging by Moscow in the peace treaty negotiations. Because these political issues–finalization of the peace treaty and a satisfactory resolution of the territorial dispute–are of paramount importance to Tokyo, the Japanese side is reportedly becoming more hesitant to give Russia what it wants most from Tokyo: financial assistance and greater economic cooperation (Itar-Tass, October 17).

Moscow’s efforts to promote Russian-Japanese economic cooperation while avoiding concessions on the territorial issue were in evidence on the eve of this weekend’s talks. In an interview granted to Japan’s Kyodo news agency, Ivanov called for Japan and Russia to begin joint economic developments of the disputed Kuril Islands despite the fact that the territorial row remains unresolved. Ivanov said that cooperation in this area would be the “most effective and promising way” for the two countries to create a favorable atmosphere for the peace treaty negotiations. He also suggested that a recent Japanese-Russian agreement regulating fishing by Japanese boats in Russia’s territorial waters off the Kuril Islands represents a possible model for other forms of economic cooperation between the two countries on the islands (Kyodo, October 17).

Ivanov’s call for joint economic development of the islands reprises a proposal made by then Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov in November 1996. Tokyo rejected the proposal at that time–and on several occasions since then–because of a belief that joint economic development would represent recognition of Russian sovereignty over the islands. There is little reason to believe that Tokyo will retreat from that position now. For the same reason, it seems unlikely that Japan will be willing to take up Ivanov’s suggestion that the fishing agreement be used as a model. That agreement was reached after years of arduous and acrimonious negotiations. In the end, it was finalized only because, in setting out rules for Japanese boats to fish near the Kurils, it avoided the broader territorial issue altogether.

To date the Kremlin has showed no inclination to make concessions to Japan during the peace treaty negotiations, and that stance has likely been strengthened by the naming of Yevgeny Primakov as prime minister. There are, nevertheless, forces in Russia that appear determined to undermine any possibility that Russian diplomats might somehow finesse the territorial issue and still manage to garner some economic benefits from Tokyo. On October 7 the Russian State Duma, dominated by communists and nationalists, reinstated a Soviet-era holiday that celebrated the 1945 victory over “Japanese militarism” (Itar-Tass, Russian Television, October 17). Then, on October 14, Russia’s Federal Security Service announced publicly that a trial on treason charges had begun against Grigory Pasko–a Russian naval officer arrested last November for allegedly passing military secrets to the Japanese (Itar-Tass, October 14, 16). The timing of the two acts, on the eve of Komura’s visit and in the run-up to the Yeltsin-Obuchi summit in November, suggests an effort to limit even further any possible room for maneuver that Yeltsin might have had in his talks with Obuchi.