Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 55

Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Maslyukov, back in Moscow after several days of talks earlier this week with Japanese officials, said yesterday that his trip to Tokyo had been “useful” and had helped the two countries move forward on a number of joint economic projects. But Russian newspaper accounts of Maslyukov’s visit to Japan were a good deal less positive. They suggested that Maslyukov had failed utterly in the primary goal of his trip: to win Japanese support for Russia’s negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and to shake loose some US$800 million in loans pledged by Tokyo to Moscow last February (Kommersant daily, Trud, March 17).

While proclaiming their continuing support for the economic reforms of the Russian government, Japanese leaders have made disbursement of the loan funds dependent on an IMF decision to resume aid to Moscow. Russian Economics Minister Andrei Shapovalyants had traveled to Tokyo earlier this month in hopes of getting Tokyo to ease its position on the matter. He had no more success than did Maslyukov this week.

Some Russian news sources suggested this week that Tokyo’s intransigence on the loan issue is related also to the Kuril Islands territorial dispute (Russian TV, March 15; Trud, March 17). In recent months Japanese leaders have called with increasing urgency for Moscow and Tokyo to pick up the pace of negotiations aimed at concluding a peace treaty by the year 2000. Tokyo argues that a settlement of the territorial issue–by which Japan hopes for the return of the four Russian-controlled south Kuril Islands–must be a part of the peace treaty talks.

Moscow, in turn, has attempted to decouple the territorial issue from the peace treaty talks and to defer a resolution of the Kuril Islands’ status until a later date. Russian leaders have in much the same way tried to promote Japanese-Russian economic cooperation without making concessions on the territorial issue. Moscow has argued that improved economic ties between the two countries would help them–ultimately–to overcome their differences on the territorial issue. Tokyo appears to be having little of that argument.

Russian participants of this week’s talks in Tokyo did suggest that the two sides had made progress in implementing the so-called “Yeltsin-Hashimoto” plan. That initiative, which was launched by President Boris Yeltsin and former Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, is aimed at boosting bilateral economic ties. During a meeting of a joint government commission tasked with improving economic relations between Japan and Russia’s Far Eastern region, the two sides reportedly agreed to look more deeply into six major projects in the fuel and energy sector and in the mining industry. It was unclear, however, how much real progress had been made. The projects will reportedly be discussed anew during a visit to Moscow by Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura scheduled for next month (Itar-Tass, March 16).

An additional indication of mounting problems in relations between Moscow and Tokyo surfaced last night when Russian government sources said that Boris Yeltsin might postpone a trip to Japan–tentatively scheduled for this spring–until at least sometime in the fall. Yeltsin’s health was cited as one reason for the possible postponement. But the Russian officials suggested that the failure of the two countries to make progress in their peace treaty negotiations was another. They indicated that, in order for Yeltsin’s trip to take place, Moscow and Tokyo would have to achieve some positive results in upcoming talks between top officials of the two countries. Those talks include the consultations scheduled to take place next month between the Russian and Japanese foreign ministers (Kyodo, March 18).