Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 2

By Peter Rutland

There is a comfortable viewing station set up on a windy bluff just outside Nemuro, on the eastern coast of the Japanese island of Hokkaido. Tourists peer through powerful binoculars at some rocky barren islands a couple of miles offshore. They are looking at Habomai, which has been Russian territory since it was seized by Stalin’s troops at the end of World War II, along with the rest of the Kuril island chain. To the north, the main island of Kunashiri stretches across the horizon as far as the eye can see.

It must be a strange and unpleasant feeling for the people of the land of the rising sun to look east and see Russia. To rub the point in, a few years ago the Russians erected a tall Orthodox cross on Habomai, right across from the viewing station.

Fifty-seven years later, Stalin’s land grab is still poisoning Russo-Japanese relations. Because of the territorial dispute, Japan has refused to sign a peace treaty with Russia formally ending World War II.

On January 9, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi arrived in Moscow for a four-day visit–the first by a Japanese premier since 1998. When Putin invited Koizumi to visit Moscow during the G-8 summit in Canada in June 2002, the main goal was to restart the stalled search for a bilateral peace treaty.

But no progress towards a treaty was really expected at the meeting–and none was achieved, beyond a commitment to a vague “action plan” to strengthen bilateral ties, in which the islands issue was conspicuously absent. Instead, two other issues dominated the summit: the controversy around North Korea’s plans to go nuclear, and possible Japanese financing for an oil pipeline from Siberia to the Pacific.

Russia and Japan share a common interest in preventing a nuclear Korea. And Korea is the number one issue in Japanese politics today, since Koizumi’s September visit to Pyongyang led to the sensational release of five captives whom Korea had abducted from Japan years ago (and whose families are still trapped in North Korea).

Putin has gone out of his way to be friendly to Kim Jong Il, the wacky dictator of Pyongyang, so he may be able to produce a face-saving solution to the Korean crisis. There is an outside possibility that Russia could repeat its diplomatic coup of May 1999, when it persuaded Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw from Kosovo, preventing a NATO ground invasion.

Koizumi’s proposal of Japanese financing for a US$4-billion-plus pipeline from the oilfields of Angarsk to the port of Nakhodka caught observers by surprise. The 2,500-mile pipeline would skirt but not cross Chinese territory. The proposal came just a month after the collapse of a bold plan by the Russian oil company Yukos and the China National Petroleum Corporation to build a US$1.8-billion, 1,600-mile line to Daqing in China. The Yukos plan was opposed by Transneft, the state-owned company that has a near-monopoly of Russia’s oil pipelines. For strategic reasons Japan would not be particularly happy to see Russian oil flowing to its giant Asian neighbor, but whether the Angarsk-Nakhodka project is financially realistic is an open question. It’s also hard to see such a project going ahead without resolution of the islands issue.

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Russo-Japanese relations will probably remain in the deep-freeze unless and until they come to agreement over the four disputed islands, known to Japan as the Northern Territories and to Russia as the South Kurils. In 1997 Boris Yeltsin promised to conclude negotiations for a peace treaty by the end of 2000, and Putin made the issue a priority when he became president in March 2000.

During his visit to Tokyo in September 2000, Putin apparently resurrected an offer the Soviet Union made in 1956 but later revoked, under which Moscow promised to hand over the two southernmost islands, Shikotan and the Habomai group, after a peace treaty was signed. These two islands had not historically been listed as part of the Kuril chain, and were not covered by the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty according to which, under the Russian interpretation, Japan agreed to the loss of the two northern islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu.

After Putin’s visit a small group of officials and legislators in Tokyo started to lobby for a “dual track” solution: Get two islands back now, sign the peace treaty and pursue long-term negotiations for the return of the two northern islands. The influential Diet member Muneo Suzuki, who represents the district of Nemuro which faces the Kurils, apparently persuaded then Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori of the wisdom of this approach. Mori pitched the idea to Putin when they met in Irkutsk in March 2001.

However, once rumors of the talks leaked out, the two-island compromise came under fire from hardliners in both countries. Russians and Japanese are motivated by the same force on this issue: wounded national pride. That is why the search for a reasonable compromise has proved so difficult.

Russian nationalists, humiliated by the loss of the Soviet Union, reject any further territorial retreats. They invoke Tsar Aleksandr II, who when told that a Russian outpost had been built on the far side of the Amur River, reportedly said “Where a Russian boot has touched the earth, not one inch must be given up.” State Duma deputies repeatedly condemn any idea of territorial concessions to Japan, and in March 2002 passed a resolution saying that no peace treaty with Japan need be signed. But Putin has shown that he is master of his own foreign policy, so Duma opposition would not necessarily prevent a territorial compromise with Japan–if that is what Putin wants.

For Japan, the Soviet seizure of the Northern Territories and expulsion of the inhabitants represents a flagrant violation of international law, made all the more galling by the fact that Moscow tore up its neutrality treaty with Japan and entered the war just two weeks before it ended.

The Japanese also note that Russia has been singularly inept in running the islands. Apart from coastguards, no Russians now live on Habomai and Shikotan, where there used to be 17,000 Japanese inhabitants. Even the main island of Kunashiri depends on Japanese aid for hospital facilities and power generators. Russians from the islands can now visit Hokkaido without a visa, and some Japanese have been allowed to travel to the islands to visit their ancestors’ graves.

With the end of the Cold War, the island chain lost its strategic significance. Nowadays no one worries about U.S. subs sneaking into the Sea of Okhotsk. The islands are rich in fish and seaweed, but these are businesses that can turn a tidy profit irrespective of who owns the islands. (Japan protested vigorously in August 2001 when Russia granted some fishing licenses to South Korean vessels.)

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In April 2001 the ineffective Mori was replaced as prime minister by Junichiro Koizumi. Koizumi’s maverick foreign minister, Makiko Tanaka, had an unorthodox style that caused chaos in the ranks of the staid foreign ministry. In March 2002, a document was leaked to the Japanese Communist Party, purportedly the minutes of a March 2001 meeting between lawmaker Suzuki, then director of the Europe and Oceania Affairs Bureau of the Foreign Ministry Kazuhiko Togo, and the Russian ambassador to Japan. When published, the document produced a storm of controversy.

The Japanese pair was accused of running a private foreign policy and selling out Japan’s national interests. Suzuki was accused of promoting the dual track initiative in order to steer aid money for the Kurils into lucrative construction contracts for his Nemuro constituency. In the ensuing tsunami of scandal, Suzuki was forced to leave the Liberal Democratic Party and thirty-three foreign ministry officials were demoted or fired, including Togo, who by then was ambassador to the Netherlands. The scandal sank any possibility of flexibility in the Japanese position for the foreseeable future.

Both sides believe that time is on their side, that long-term economic trends will work in their favor. The Russians believe that energy-starved Japan will come begging for a share of the oil and gas riches of nearby Sakhalin. The Japanese believe that Russia cannot develop said riches without Japanese technology and capital, and they point to the climatic, ecological and bureaucratic hurdles which the Sakhalin projects must overcome. On this score, the Japanese probably have the better argument.

But the real stumbling block is political, and not economic. Japan’s puzzling reluctance to meet Russia half way–by splitting the islands down the middle–may stem from deeper and darker concerns. Perhaps they in fact prefer to keep Russia at arm’s length, and would not welcome the closer economic, political and social ties that could follow from resolution of the territorial dispute. Perhaps they have grown too accustomed to the role of victim–victim of Stalin’s aggression, victim of Truman’s atomic bombs–which they can use as a psychological shield against the accusations leveled against them about wartime atrocities in China and Korea.

There may be a silver lining to the storm clouds gathering over Pyongyang. The unfolding crisis around North Korea may serve to jolt both Russia and Japan out of their misapprehensions and complacency, and force them to turn over a new leaf, and build a new relationship based on mutual respect and mutual interests.

Peter Rutland is editor of Russia and Eurasia Review and a professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. In 1998 he was a visiting scholar at Hokkaido University’s Slavic Research Center in Sapporo.