Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 4

Improving relations between Russia and Japan appeared to hit a speed bump yesterday as a Russian Foreign Ministry official lashed out at Japanese prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto for remarks on the Kuril Islands territorial dispute made by the Japanese leader in a New Year’s day address. In the speech, Hashimoto had said that there "will be no peace treaty [with Russia] without determining a border line. I believe a peace treaty will confirm Japan’s sovereignty over the four islands." The unnamed Russian diplomat, identified only as a top Foreign Ministry official, said that Hashimoto’s remarks suggested Tokyo was now attaching preconditions to negotiations on a Russian-Japanese peace treaty and that this kind of attitude would not have a positive impact on those talks. Japanese officials, in turn, were said to have been puzzled by the Russian diplomat’s reaction. They said that Hashimoto’s remarks signified no change whatsoever in Japan’s stance toward the territorial dispute and the peace treaty negotiations. (Kyodo, January 7)

The four disputed Kuril Islands — called the Northern Territories in Japan — were seized by Soviet troops from Japan at the close of World War II. A disagreement on sovereignty over the islands precluded the signing of a peace treaty between the two countries and has remained the primary obstacle to a normalization of relations since that time. Even in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Japan continued in large part to hold improved ties hostage to progress on the territorial issue.

That hard-line stand (which was met with equal intransigence in Moscow) was set aside only in July of last year, when Hashimoto unexpectedly announced that Japan would change its diplomatic approach to dealings with Russia. (See Monitor, July 25, 1997) This apparent softening in Japan’s position initiated a warming in relations that culminated in last November’s informal and highly successful summit between Hashimoto and Russian president Boris Yeltsin in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. (See Monitor, November 3, 1997) The two men indicated at that time that they would work toward concluding a peace treaty by 2000. That these efforts remained on track was suggested by the announcement on December 30 that three years’ of negotiations had at last yielded an agreement on fishing rights for Japanese boats in the waters off the disputed islands. (See yesterday’s Monitor)

Although this latest brouhaha is likely to prove only a hiccup in the treaty negotiation process between Russia and Japan, it does underscore the continued fragility of that process. It also brings back memories of a dispute that flared up only two days after the November summit, when representatives from the two countries began to bicker over precisely what had been agreed upon in Krasnoyarsk. (See Monitor, November 5, 1997) Hashimoto at that time felt compelled to deny publicly Russian press reports that Tokyo had agreed to decouple the peace treaty from the territorial issue, and he specified that resolution of the territorial dispute must precede a treaty. These same issues appear to be at play in the most recent exchange between Moscow and Tokyo, and serve as a reminder that, despite their best efforts to build a relationship of trust and cooperation, the two countries continue to be sharply divided on the disposition of the four disputed islands.

The Monitor continues its survey of Ukraine’s political parties and blocs in the runup to the parliamentary elections. See the series of profiles in The Monitor, November 6, 17, 20, and December 5, 12, and 24, 1997.

Ukraine’s Political Landscape: The Social-Democrat Party.