Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 76

Moscow and Tokyo have clashed anew over the four South Kuril Islands–only a day after the amicable close of an informal summit meeting between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto (see yesterday’s Monitor). The islands were seized by Russia from Japan at the close of World War II but are still claimed by Tokyo. The cause of yesterday’s sudden brouhaha arose from a spate of reports carried by Japanese news sources that revealed some details of a plan allegedly presented to Yeltsin by Hashimoto during their weekend meeting. That plan, the reports said, called for the drawing of a new Japanese-Russian border line north of the four disputed islands. In practical terms, the new demarcation would effectively return the islands to Japan.

During the news conference that closed their two-day summit on April 19, the two leaders had announced–without providing any elaboration–that Hashimoto had offered a “serious new proposal” directed towards helping the two countries conclude a peace treaty by the year 2000. Yeltsin had said only that he intended to study the proposal. Yesterday’s reports indicated that the border demarcation plan was, in fact, Hashimoto’s new proposal.

According to one Japanese newspaper, the proposal makes no direct mention of ownership over the islands. It was said to have been formulated so as to give Tokyo control over the islands–but in a way that would sidestep fierce Russian opposition to any such territorial concessions. As part of the proposal, Hashimoto reportedly also called for the establishment of a transitional period during which Japan would acknowledge Russia’s provisional administrative authority over the islands. That period would end with their transferal to Japan. Reports said that Japanese authorities were prepared to begin joint economic development of the islands with Russia but only after the border demarcation proposal is included on the agenda of peace treaty talks between the two countries. (Reuter, Kyodo, Itar-Tass, April 20)

Tokyo’s seemingly transparent attempt to regain the islands brought the expected sharp rebuff from Moscow. In the midst of an official visit to Sakhalin Oblast–of which the disputed islands are a part–Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky criticized the Japanese authorities for “leaking” details of Hashimoto’s proposal. He also indicated that Russia has no intention of giving the islands to Japan. “No one is planning to do anything behind the backs of the people of Sakhalin and the Russians,” he said. (Reuter, Russian agencies, April 20) Yastrzhembsky’s reference was both to accusations from Yeltsin’s political opponents in Moscow, and to concerns among regional elites in Sakhalin and throughout Russia’s Far East that the Kremlin is prepared to make secret concessions to Japan on the territorial issue.

Yastrzhembsky, who doubles as a foreign policy advisor to Yeltsin, also pointedly observed yesterday that Russia’s constitution would in any event make any transfer of territory difficult indeed. Russian law requires that any proposed territorial transfer be ratified by the State Duma. Such a transfer must also be approved by referendum and win the consent of the particular region to which the territory belongs. There is as yet little support for any such move, in part because the waters around the islands are rich in fish. The islands themselves are also strategically important.

Yesterday’s note of discord was reminiscent of a spat between Japan and Russia that broke out within days of the first informal Yeltsin-Hashimoto summit in Krasnoyarsk on November 1-2 of last year. That meeting, like this past weekend’s talks, was a friendly encounter viewed with complete satisfaction by both sides. On November 4, however, Hashimoto publicly denied Russian press reports suggesting that Tokyo had agreed in Krasnoyarsk to decouple peace treaty talks between the two sides from consideration of the Kuril Islands territorial issue. (See Monitor, November 5, 1997) Prior to this latest meeting some suggestions had been made that Tokyo was prepared to ease its stand on that issue. Yesterday’s reports suggest that is anything but the case. They also suggest that, friendly proclamations notwithstanding, the two countries remain deeply divided over how to deal with a half century of accumulated frustration on the territorial issue.