Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 203

The disputed Kuril Islands, meanwhile, have remained in the news over the past few days for several other reasons. On October 30, a large Japanese delegation departed for the islands carrying a shipload of humanitarian aid for the islands’ residents. The cargo reportedly included some 140 tons of food, as well as pumps for portable gas ranges, candles and lamps. Tokyo has also sent two small diesel power plants to Shikotan, one of the disputed islands. The Japanese Foreign Ministry said yesterday that the aid program grew out of a sincere concern for the welfare of the islanders, some of whom currently lack power as winter approaches (Itar-Tass, October 30).

The aid effort clearly carries political undertones as well, however. Local officials representing the islanders have recently complained of Moscow’s indifference to deteriorating conditions on the islands, and have warned of growing “pro-Japanese” sentiment among residents of the Kurils. They have also threatened to lease territory on the islands to Japan on a long-term basis. That threat has drawn the attention of federal officials in the Russian capital (where nationalists have long accused the Yeltsin government of plotting to give the islands away). According to one government official, the threat has also generated activity by authorities in Sakhalin Oblast, of which the Kurils are a part. The Russian minister for regional policy, Valery Kirpichnikov, said yesterday that officials in Sakhalin are now looking at how they can direct revenues from regional gas and oil projects to the islands in order to improve socio-economic conditions there (Russian agencies, November 2).

As if that were not enough, tensions between Russia and Japan over fishing rights in the waters off the Kurils have flared up yet again in recent days. The latest chapter in this long saga began on October 31 when Russian coast guard vessels seized three Japanese fishing boats on suspicion of fishing in Russian waters off the Kurils. The crews of the three boats submitted guarantees that they would pay fines totaling in the area of US$40,000. They were released immediately. Those boats had no sooner returned to Japan, however, when Russian coast guard vessels reported sighting another eight Japanese boats in Russian waters near the Kurils on November 1. The latest incidents prompted an official from Russia’s Federal Border Guard Service to accuse the Japanese of a planned campaign of incursions into Russian waters. The Japanese actions, he charged, violated a recently enacted Russian-Japanese fishing agreement. They were designed, he said, to test the ability of Russian border patrol vessels to deal with large incursions into Russian waters near the Kurils (Russian agencies, October 30-November 2).