Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 32

Local administrators on Russia’s beleaguered–and disputed–south Kuril Islands reportedly requested emergency fuel aid from Japan yesterday. According to news agency reports, Vladimir Zema, head of the South Kuril district administration, said yesterday that two of the four islands face catastrophic fuel shortages. In several towns, he said, the local power generating plants will have to be shut down sometime today if more fuel is not found. Weather conditions, moreover, would reportedly make it difficult to transport fuel to the Kurils from other Russian cities in the region. Zema warned that delays in getting fuel to the Kurils could necessitate the evacuation of at least portions of the island population (Kyodo, Russian agencies, February 15).

Yesterday’s report comes at an embarrassing time for Moscow. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov is set to travel to Japan on February 20-22 for talks which will undoubtedly include on their agenda the ongoing Russian-Japanese negotiations over the four disputed Kuril Islands (Itar-Tass, February 15). Moscow would like to put discussions of the territorial issue aside and focus instead on improving broader political and–especially–economic ties between the two countries. Tokyo, in contrast, has continued to make it clear that a satisfactory resolution of dispute over the Kuril Islands–called the Northern Territories in Japan–must be a part of any broader improvement in relations.

The increasingly dismal economic situation on the southern Kuril Islands has put additional pressure on the negotiations over the islands’ political status. The islanders have suffered greatly since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and have tried to use Japan’s interest in the islands as a lever to pry more federal aid out of Moscow. Local authorities have, among other things, warned of growing pro-Japanese sentiment islands. They have also threatened to lease portions of the islands to the Japanese on a long-term basis.

The federal authorities, in turn, have repeatedly promised to increase federal funding for the Kurils, but have thus far failed to deliver on their pledges. That issue is sure to be on the agenda when Ivanov visits the Kurils on February 19–en route to his talks in Japan. On February 13 Ivanov met in the Kremlin with Russian President Boris Yeltsin to discuss the upcoming trip. Ivanov is to hold talks in Japan with Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura (Russian agencies, February 12-13; Kyodo, February 12).