Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 19

Russia’s diplomats have focused in recent weeks primarily on the West, and particularly on blunting the negative consequences of Russia’s differences with both Europe and the United States over Moscow’s bloody crackdown in Chechnya. Indeed, that effort was expected to take center stage today, when Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov traveled to Strasbourg to defend Russian policy in the Caucasus at a session of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly devoted to the Caucasus war.

But behind the headlines generated by the Chechen conflict, Moscow has also moved recently to get its diplomatic house in order more generally. This effort follows a long period of drift and turmoil occasioned by both former President Boris Yeltsin’s increasing inability to manage affairs of state and, at the very close of 1999, his sudden and unexpected transfer of executive power to Prime Minister (now acting president) Vladimir Putin. But what is widely expected to become the Putin “era” will likely get off to something of a slow start in this regard. With an eye obviously on the upcoming presidential vote, Putin apparently does not intend to travel abroad until he has secured an election victory (Russia TV, January 23). That relations with Asia will continue to remain a priority of Russian foreign policy under Putin, however, was suggested by Kremlin reports that Putin will make a trip to Beijing the first–or, at the least, one of the first–of his trips abroad following his presumed election (AFP, January 18).

Yet the Kremlin also seems to have taken some care in recent days to signal that it does not want to let relations with Japan languish. That is to some extent no surprise. Yeltsin had been slated to travel to Japan last year for a summit meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. But he repeatedly put off the trip and, in the end, never made it to Tokyo. Yeltsin’s inaction was in part a result of his worsening health problems. By most accounts, though, it was also related to a broader stagnation in Russian-Japanese relations which is attributed to their inability to resolve deep and long-standing differences in the Kuril Islands territorial dispute. Those differences torpedoed an ambitious mutual effort to conclude a bilateral peace treaty–one which would bring a formal end to World War II–by the year 2000. Indeed, after a period of great diplomatic activity and promise in 1997-1998, those efforts had petered out by the end of 1999.

Whether diplomatic momentum between Japan and Russia can be restored this year remains to be seen. Reports this week indicated that the two countries will try to do just that during Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov’s visit to Tokyo on February 10-13. In what will be the first high-level contact between the two governments since Yeltsin’s resignation, Ivanov is scheduled to hold talks with both Obuchi and Japanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono. Both sides will reportedly try to reenergize the peace treaty negotiations, with the goal of signing an accord by the end of the year. There were also suggestions that, in a further effort to boost the talks, officials are discussing the possibility of Putin’s visiting Japan in July. Such plans would involve an Obuchi-Putin summit meeting on the eve of the Group of Eight summit scheduled to begin on July 21 in Okinawa (AFP, Itar-Tass, January 25).

To demonstrate what is being portrayed as Moscow’s renewed commitment to a forward-moving Japanese-Russian dialogue, Putin this week reportedly issued special instructions to Russian government officials tasking them with ensuring parliamentary ratification of a Russian-Japanese agreement on mutual protection of investments. A Russian minister was quoted on January 25 as saying that Putin had singled out this document from a large number of pending agreements with other countries. “This is a very symbolic move,” he said, which will help to strengthen bilateral relations” (Itar-Tass, January 25).