Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 38

Ivanov’s trip to Japan was also conducted with an eye toward accommodating regional politicians in Russia’s Far East who feel their interests may be threatened by Russian-Japanese negotiations on the disputed Kuril Islands. The Russian minister stopped off en route to Japan on February 20 for a half day of talks with local leaders in the Sakhalin region, of which the disputed islands are an administrative part. While there, Ivanov paid his respects at what was described as a monument to Russian soldiers who died fighting the Japanese in Sakhalin and on the Kuril Islands. The gesture was probably not much appreciated in Tokyo, but was undoubtedly directed at pleasing nationalists in the region (and throughout Russia). who have accused the Kremlin of negotiating secretly to give away the islands.

While in Sakhalin Ivanov reiterated that Moscow has no intention of ceding to Tokyo sovereignty over the four disputed Kuril Islands. But the attention of regional leaders may have been focused as much on the Far East’s dire economic problems as on questions of sovereignty. Ivanov got an earful from regional leaders over a plan, reportedly backed by the Kremlin, that would establish the Kuril Islands as a free economic zone. Sakhalin residents made clear that they thought the entire region–and not merely the disputed islands–should be granted the status of a free economic zone. He and other regional leaders were said also to have strongly urged Ivanov to use his visit to Tokyo to lobby for increased Japanese investment and business activity on the Kuril Islands.

Sakhalin region Governor Igor Farkhutdinov, meanwhile, complained of a draft federal bill that would have the federal authorities in Moscow administer any free economic zone that might be established on the islands or in Sakhalin. Farkhutdinov presumably wants to keep any revenues that might be generated by the free zone in Sakhalin. He reportedly warned that Moscow’s administrative plan would lead to the dismemberment of Sakhalin region and suggested that it could also abet Tokyo’s efforts to regain control of the Kurils (Russian agencies, February 21).

Regional leaders also expressed their continuing frustration over what they say is Moscow’s failure to fully implement a federal assistance program for the economic development of the Kuril Islands. They said that the 1999 federal budget provides only 85.6 million rubles for the program, rather than the 320 million rubles that it requires (Itar-Tass, February 21). Local and regional leaders have frequently complained about what they say is the federal authorities’ neglect of the increasingly impoverished islands. Amid offers by Tokyo to assist the islands, local Russian leaders have warned that Moscow’s short-sightedness is increasing pro-Japanese sentiment among the islands’ inhabitants.