Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 15

Russian and Japanese delegations, meeting in Moscow yesterday, signed an agreement that could bring the two countries another small step closer to the signing of a bilateral peace treaty ending World War II. The delegations, led by Russian deputy foreign minister Grigory Karasin and his Japanese counterpart, Minoru Tamba, agreed to set up a joint commission tasked with drafting the peace treaty. The commission is to be headed by Foreign Ministers Yevgeny Primakov of Russia and Keizo Obuchi of Japan, and will hold its first session during a trip by Obuchi to Moscow in late February. (Russian agencies, Kyodo, January 22) Yesterday’s talks, and the establishment of the commission itself, fulfill pledges made by Russian president Boris Yeltsin and Japanese prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto during their informal summit meeting last November in Krasnoyarsk.

Yesterday’s agreement thus maintains the momentum in Russian-Japanese relations that was first generated by Hashimoto during a speech last summer in which he announced that Tokyo would henceforth follow a "new course" in relations with Russia. (See Monitor, July 25, 1997) The change in tactics deemphasized Japan’s earlier insistence that peace treaty talks depended on resolution of a dispute over the status of the four southern Kuril Islands (called the Northern Territories in Japan) — seized from Japan by the Soviet Union at the close of World War II. The follow-up summit meeting in Krasnoyarsk symbolized the dramatic warming in relations that has occurred between the two countries. (See Monitor, November 3, 1997)

One Russian newspaper has speculated that Japan is intensely interested in making 1998 a breakthrough year with regard to negotiations on the peace treaty and, especially, on disposition of the islands. (Segodnya, January 15) According to the daily, Japanese leaders fear that uncertainties connected to the start of campaigning for Russia’s 2000 presidential election could leave Moscow little time to negotiate constructively on these issues. The newspaper suggests that Japan will stick to its demand that the islands be returned, but will attempt to soften the wording of any such proposal. Tokyo might, for example, suggest that Russia retain "administrative rights" over the islands for a specific period of time before they revert to Japan, much like the arrangement between Great Britain and China over Hong Kong.

Some resolution of the territorial issue, in other words, remains the key to the signing of a peace treaty and to general friendly relations between the two countries. That fact has been highlighted on several occasions since the Krasnoyarsk meeting, when Japanese leaders sharply denied reports that they had agreed to decouple the territorial issue from the peace treaty talks. On January 7, Russia’s Foreign Ministry criticized Hashimoto for making remarks to that effect during a New Year’s press conference. (Kyodo, January 7. See Monitor, January 8)

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