Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 223

In remarks to reporters in Tokyo yesterday, Russia’s ambassador to Japan appeared to set out explicitly a policy toward the Kuril Islands territorial dispute which, until now, Russian leaders have largely only hinted at. Aleksandr Panov bluntly told the Kyodo news service that Russia and Japan could not possibly manage to resolve their decades-long territorial dispute by the year 2000. He also said that an agreement by the two countries to work intensively at drafting a peace treaty by that year should not be interpreted by Tokyo as a Russian commitment to resolving the territorial dispute in the same time frame. “Saying that the conclusion of a peace treaty equals the [territorial] dispute settlement is a kind of thinking that has no understanding of realities,” Panov was quoted as saying. He also urged the Japanese government to explain the situation frankly to the Japanese people rather than feeding them the “illusion” of an early solution to the dispute (Kyodo, December 2).

During an informal summit meeting in Krasnoyarsk in November 1997 Russian President Boris Yeltsin and then Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto committed themselves to signing–by the year 2000–a peace treaty which would fully normalize bilateral relations and bring a formal close to World War II. Since that time Japanese leaders have insisted on a linkage between the peace treaty negotiations and those related to the territorial issue, and have criticized suggestions from Moscow that the two issues might best be decoupled. At a second informal summit meeting in Kawana, Japan this past April, Hashimoto handed to Yeltsin a proposal which reportedly called for redrawing the Russian-Japanese border in a fashion which would ultimately bring the four disputed islands under Japanese sovereignty. Yeltsin responded formally to that proposal at the last Russian-Japanese summit–held with current Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi–in Moscow last month.

The details of Yeltsin’s response have not been made public, but Obuchi was quoted afterward as saying that the November 12-13 talks in Moscow had produced “major progress” on the territorial issue. He also resorted to the standard Japanese formulation in telling reporters that he and Russian leaders had reaffirmed their determination to conclude a peace treaty by the year 2000 after resolving the dispute over the Kuril Islands–called the “northern territories” in Japan. Those remarks came even as Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Yakushkin was cautioning that the territorial row between Russian and Japan might not be resolved by 2000 even though the “Moscow Declaration”–the main document produced at the summit meeting–reaffirmed the goals of striving for a peace treaty by that date (Kyodo, November 13).