Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 164

As had been expected by many observers, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori failed during talks in Tokyo this week to make any progress in resolving differences related to the Kuril Islands territorial dispute. The continuing impasse only confirmed convictions that the two countries will be unable to finalize a peace treaty agreement by the end of this year. In 1997 Russian and Japanese leaders had agreed to seek the signing of a peace treaty by the year 2000. The treaty, which would bring a formal close to World War II for Moscow and Tokyo, still depends on their resolving the territorial dispute, however, and while that disagreement is apparently the sole remaining obstacle to finalizing the treaty, it is proving to be an insurmountable one. Putin and Mori nevertheless did their best to end this week’s summit talks on a positive note. They and the government officials who took part in the talks signed some fifteen agreements. More important, both sides chose to underscore what they said has been a continued warming in bilateral relations. They also committed themselves to continue seeking both a resolution to the territorial row and a signed peace treaty.

Despite the fact that the September 4-5 talks followed generally predictable lines, some developments were worth noting. One was that, during the first negotiating session devoted to the Kuril Islands dispute on Monday, Putin and Mori actually appeared to harden their positions on the issue. Putin apparently rejected outright an earlier Japanese proposal which would have granted Moscow continued administrative control over the four disputed islands while simultaneously redrawing the Russian-Japanese border in a fashion which would return the islands to Japanese sovereignty. Mori, in turn, reiterated Tokyo’s determination both to win the return of all four islands–called the Northern Territories in Japan–and to make any finalizing the peace treaty document depend on that condition. Their sharply contrasting positions appeared to confirm that Russia and Japan have failed utterly to narrow their differences on the Kuril Islands row, despite some three years’ of negotiations (Western and Japanese news agencies, September 4).

This week’s confrontation, though, was perhaps unavoidable. Until now the two sides have to some degree been able to dance around the territorial row (see the Monitor, September 1). But after nearly two years without a Russian-Japanese summit, Putin was compelled at last to respond formally to what, for Moscow, has always been an unacceptable proposal. Not surprisingly, he also reiterated this week the Russian counterproposal which has been equally unacceptable to Tokyo: deferring settlement of the Kuril Islands row at present while moving on instead to sign a peace treaty agreement, or, as a stop-gap measure, an interim peace agreement of some sort.

There was one interesting nuance in the Russian position this week, however. During Monday’s talks on the Kurils, Putin apparently said that Moscow would abide by its past agreements with Japan in this area, including not only the 1993 Tokyo and the 1998 Moscow Declarations, but also, and unexpectedly, the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration. Putin’s references to the 1993 and 1998 declarations were no surprise. The first commits the two countries to try to resolve the territorial row and sign a peace treaty based on the principles of law and justice, while the second set 2000 as a target date to reach agreement on these matters. But Putin’s mention of the 1956 declaration marked the first time that a Russian leader recognized that document in talks related to the territorial dispute. The 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration (which came as Japan and the Soviet Union reestablished diplomatic ties), committed the Soviet Union to hand over to Japan two of the disputed islands–Shikotan and the Habomai (actually a group of islets)–once the two countries had concluded a peace treaty. However, anger in Moscow over Japan’s decision in 1960 to sign a security pact with the United States led Russia, ultimately, to refuse to sign the 1956 declaration (Reuters, September 4; The Japan Times, September 5).

During his own comments to the press on September 4, and in apparent response to Putin’s mention of the 1956 agreement, Mori said that Tokyo was interested only in receiving back all four of the disputed islands. But there were some hints that Putin’s remarks on Monday were not a complete surprise. According to the Yomiuri Shimbun (September 6), an unnamed Japanese government source indicated yesterday that, prior to Putin’s arrival in Tokyo, Kremlin officials had actually held confidential discussions with their Japanese counterparts over precisely the issue of a possible return of two of the islands to Japan. The same source reportedly said that the Russian overture was made in strict confidence, and should “not be made public.” A Japanese Foreign Ministry officials was said later to have flatly denied that any such proposal had come from the Russian government. But the report, together with Putin’s own mention of the 1956 agreement, raised the intriguing possibility that Moscow may actually be willing to discuss the possible return of two of the four disputed islands to Japan. According to the same unnamed Japanese official, Tokyo would then be interested in whether the Russian government is actually in favor of returning the two island territories, or only granting Japanese sovereignty over them; and whether the Kremlin would also then be open to discussions involving the other two islands–Kunashiri and Etorofu–or whether they would then consider the territorial issue closed.

A second interesting point to come out of these talks is the apparently diverging views regarding the joint statement made yesterday which commits the two countries to continue trying to finalize the peace treaty negotiations by the end of this year. Mori is said to have interpreted this agreement as an indication that the two sides will now step up–possibly dramatically–diplomatic efforts to conclude the peace treaty talks this year. Putin, on the other hand, appeared to go out of his way in remarks to the press to indicate that he did not see the end of this year as a formal deadline of any sort for the conclusion of the peace treaty negotiations. He said that the original 1997 agreement under which the year 2000 was set as a target date represented merely a commitment by the two countries to try to complete negotiations by that date. His comments suggested that Moscow continues to believe that the peace treaty talks are likely to extend well beyond the end of the year 2000 (Yomiuri Shimbun, The Japan Times, September 6). While the issue may not seem a major one, the seemingly different interpretations given by the two sides yesterday could generate fresh tensions between Moscow and Tokyo in the event that the Japanese government finds itself over the remainder of this year pushing harder than its Russian counterpart for a successful conclusion to the peace treaty talks.

In the end, it is difficult to assess the significance of this week’s Japanese-Russian summit. Aside from remarks proclaiming the two countries to now be closer diplomatically than ever, there were a trio of joint statements and some fifteen agreements signed in all. The joint statements covered not only the peace treaty negotiations, but also international issues and Russian-Japanese economic cooperation (Asahi Evening News, September 5). But, according to at least one Japanese analyst, the economic cooperation agreements signed were in large part window dressing. Hiroshi Kimura, a Russian specialist at the Kyoto International Research Center, said that the accords were “decorative, with the purpose of pretending that Japan is interested in economic cooperation” with Russia. In fact, he said, “the main goal [of the Japanese government] is not to cut off dialogue on the territorial question” (Reuters, September 4). Indeed, Putin appears to have little luck in getting what he perhaps most wanted in Tokyo: a commitment from Mori that Japanese businesses would move to raise their currently anemic rates of investment in Russia’s economy. Instead, the Russian president heard admonitions that Moscow must first improve legal and business conditions in Russia (The Japan Times, September 5; AP, September 4).

For Putin, the Tokyo visit may have been something of a new experience. To date, he has generally been fawned over in foreign capitals, and his early trips abroad have included some dramatic and triumphant turns that only increased his popularity in Russia. Coming after a month of being battered politically at home, however, Putin probably hoped that the Tokyo visit might impart some fresh momentum to his presidency. That appears not to have been the case. But Putin departed Tokyo last evening for the UN millennium summit in New York. The Kremlin undoubtedly hopes that the Russian president’s performance there will help to restore his political fortunes at home.