Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 206

Local authorities in Russia’s Far Eastern Sakhalin region have interjected themselves into the national debate over policy toward the four south Kuril Islands sought by Japan. In a statement adopted by the Sakhalin regional legislature yesterday, lawmakers announced their opposition to any plans by the federal government which might involve the creation of a special economic zone on the disputed islands. The statement complained that such plans would remove the islands from Sakhalin’s administrative territory and turn them into a pawn in negotiations between Russia and Japan. Sakhalin lawmakers and residents were said to have characterized plans to change the status of the islands as both a form of “flirting with Japan,” and a means of winning short-term benefits in relations with Tokyo. They also expressed their concern over Japanese claims on “historically Russian territories.” The lawmakers sent their statement to President Boris Yeltsin, Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and to the leaders of the two houses of Russia’s parliament (Russian agencies, November 5).

Yesterday’s Sakhalin statement was issued despite the Russian Foreign Ministry’s specific denial of reports that it is considering any plan to convert the disputed islands into a special economic zone. Russian government officials have likewise denied accusations that they are considering any sort of phased turn-over of the islands to Japan (see the Monitor, November 5). Regional officials in Sakhalin and on the islands themselves are nevertheless upset with Moscow for another reason. They say that the federal government has failed to provide promised financial aid for the economically beleaguered region. That point was made by Sakhalin Governor Igor Farkhutdinov. He told the Russian newspaper “Nezavisimaya gazeta” that were the federal government to finance even half of the program for the socio-economic development of the islands, the oblast “would [then] be able to resolve many of the most important problems [the islanders] faced” (Russian agencies, November 5).

The latest upsurge in interest over the islands comes, not surprisingly, as Russian and Japanese officials prepare for next week’s summit. That meeting will be held in Moscow between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. In April the Japanese made a proposal which–if reports are to be believed–called for the gradual transfer of the islands to Japan. Yeltsin has agreed to respond formally to the proposal at next week’s summit. The Kremlin has shown no sign, though, of any willingness to make concessions on the islands. Regardless, Russian leaders would like to finesse the issue and end up with a bird in each hand and none in the bush. That is, they would like to ensure both that relations between the two countries continue to improve, and that Japan moves into an active economic partnership with Russia.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin moved yesterday to remove at least one possible point of friction from next week’s talks. According to the president’s press office, Yeltsin has vetoed a bill–introduced by Sakhalin lawmakers and backed by Russian nationalist groups–which would revive observance of a Soviet-era holiday which celebrated the country’s World War II victory over Japanese “militarism.” Yeltsin reportedly proposed that the September 2 holiday serve instead as a celebration of the end of the war (Kyodo, November 5; see also the Monitor, October 30).