Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 56

As recent events have made clear, however, the awkwardness in Russian-Japanese relations was only beginning. Ties between the two countries took another hit earlier this year when a powerful Japanese lawmaker, Muneo Suzuki, became embroiled in a series of scandals that have rocked the Koizumi government and led Suzuki to retire in disgrace on March 15 from Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Relations with Russia have been affected because, according to Japanese accounts, Suzuki’s transgressions included corruption and misdeeds in his management of a number of government-funded development projects on Kunashir, one of the four disputed Kuril Islands. Of perhaps greater importance, Suzuki also had deep ties to the Foreign Ministry and was reportedly a long-time influential player in Japan’s relations with Russia. According to several accounts, he may also have served in this capacity as an initiator of the two-track approach to the Kuril Islands territorial dispute that Tanaka ultimately rejected. Indeed, according to one Japanese newspaper account, the Japanese government’s recent decision to abandon the two-track approach was made in part precisely to distance the Liberal Democratic Party from Suzuki, who media reports say is Japan’s most unpopular politician.

But Suzuki’s murky role in Russian-Japanese relations generally and the territorial dispute negotiations more specifically has not been the only reason that Tokyo has chosen to rethink its policies in the latter area. An equally compelling cause is that Russia has itself chosen recently to reject any interest in the two-track approach. This was made public on March 13 by Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in testimony before the lower house of Russia’s parliament, the State Duma. Ivanov’s statements on that occasion appear to have been a response, in large part, to a series of leaks from the Japanese side alleging that Ivanov had indicated Moscow’s consent to pursuing the two-track approach during his visit to Tokyo in February. Those leaks, which suggested that the Kremlin was prepared to give away the smaller islands of Shikotan and the Habomai and to negotiate the return of the two larger islands–Kunashir and Iturup–to the Japanese, appear to have angered Moscow in part because they violated an agreement that the territorial dispute negotiations were to be kept secret. At the same time, the leaks have helped to energize nationalist and other groups in Russia that categorically oppose making any territorial concessions to Japan. It was against that background that Ivanov publicly reassured lawmakers that the government was involved in no secret negotiations with the Japanese over the disputed islands.

Ivanov’s rejection of the two-track approach was reportedly conveyed to the Japanese side directly by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov during a meeting of senior diplomatic personnel from the two countries held in Moscow on March 15. According to a Japanese news source, a member of the Japanese delegation at those talks–Deputy Foreign Minister Toshiyuki Takano–used the meeting to officially acknowledge the Russian position. That appeared to end, at least for the time being, public Japanese claims that Moscow had indeed agreed to pursue the two-track approach.

But the issue did not die there. On March 18 the Russian State Duma approved a resolution urging President Vladimir Putin to abandon negotiations with Japan on the Kuril Islands issue altogether and to seek, not a peace treaty that would formally end World War II, but simply a friendship and cooperation treaty with Tokyo. “Territorial concessions by Russia are unacceptable and the treaty should confirm only the existing border between Russia and Japan,” the resolution stated. It also argued that “Russia and Japan made peace in 1956 and there is no need for an additional treaty.” In recommending that Russia cease acknowledging the existence of any territorial dispute with Japan, several Russian lawmakers were also quoted as saying that the Kremlin should adopt firmer policies with respect to the Kuril Islands. Indeed, one even called for the termination of a 1998 agreement giving Japanese boats the right to fish in the waters off the islands, arguing that it infringes on the rights of Russian fishermen. The 1998 fishing accord is one of the few concrete agreements to come out of the warming in relations over the past several years.

Against this background, it is unclear where Japanese-Russian relations will go from here. The Russian Foreign Ministry has announced that it intends to continue talks on the territorial and peace treaty issues as before with Tokyo, the State Duma resolution notwithstanding. Japanese Foreign Minister Kawaguchi likewise was quoted yesterday as saying that the Duma resolution is nonbinding and that she does not believe it represents the views of the Russian government. The Duma action does nonetheless reflect a new politicization of the islands dispute, and its approval suggests that the Russian government will likewise have less room to maneuver in its talks with Tokyo. Public rallies against the making of territorial concessions to Japan, which took place in Russia’s far eastern Sakhalin region this week, also demonstrated the difficulties that the Kremlin may face in this area. The Japanese government, meanwhile, apparently intends to rethink its approach to the territorial dispute. But given Koizumi’s growing political weakness, it will be difficult for Tokyo to take any position other than one that insists on a return of all four islands. And that suggests that, barring an unexpected turnaround of some sort in Moscow or Tokyo, Japanese and Russian negotiators may face some trying days in the months ahead (VOA, March 13; Japan Times, Asahi Shimbun, March 5, 15; NTV, March 15; Yomiuri Shimbun, March 16-17; Dawn, March 16; AFP, March 15, 18; Interfax, March 15, 18; Kyodo, March 13, 19).