Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 129

In a televised interview on an NTV Sunday morning talk show, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that the Russian government would be prepared to fulfill its obligation under the 1956 Joint Soviet-Japanese Declaration. This declaration, ratified by the USSR Supreme Soviet, called for a peace treaty ending the state of hostilities between the two countries, and for the Soviet Union to hand over to Japan the sovereignty of two of the disputed Kuril Islands: Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets. The Northern Territories dispute has dogged relations between Moscow and Tokyo for almost six decades. Lavrov stated, “Russia hopes for [the] complete normalization of relations with Japan. To that end, signing a peace treaty is important and the territorial dispute must be resolved” (Mainichi Shimbun, November 15).

Lavrov’s statement, later reiterated by Russian President Vladimir Putin at a cabinet meeting on November 15, is probably the opening round of what will be a busy diplomatic campaign between the two states, leading up to Putin’s presidential visit to Japan, tentatively planned for sometime in early 2005. Lavrov is expected to meet today [November 17] with Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura, on the sidelines of the foreign ministerial meeting at the APEC summit in Santiago, Chile (Nikkei Shimbun, November 15).

Both Lavrov and Putin stressed the necessity of meeting all obligations that Russia inherited from the Soviet Union (Kommersant, November 15). This is actually not the first time that Moscow has hinted that it was prepared to recognize — and implement — the 1956 declaration. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze hinted that the Soviet Union was prepared to honor the declaration in the late 1980s. Additionally, both Boris Yeltsin and Putin (most recently in 2001) also tacitly suggested that they were prepared to sign a peace treaty based on the 1956 declaration. But on each occasion the Japanese government held out for the return of all four of the disputed islands, and negotiations ultimately went nowhere. Lavrov was careful to stress that negotiations were necessary: “As the successor state, we recognize this declaration, but both sides have to talk in order to implement it” (Kommersant, November 15).

The Japanese side has demonstrated some flexibility on this issue, even agreeing to recognize Russian administrative control for years to come, in exchange for Russian recognition of Japan’s ultimate sovereignty over the islands. But Japan has been very firm in its insistence on the return of all four — not just two — islands. At a press conference in his residence on November 16, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said that as long as the sovereignty of all four islands is not clearly stated, then Japan has no intention of signing a peace treaty. But he did suggest that discussions could go forward (Asahi Shimbun, November 16). As one veteran journalist commented, “In Tokyo, you can count the diplomats and politicians capable of simply speaking of the possibility of a compromise on the islands on the fingers of one hand” (Kommersant, November 15). Therefore, the chances of this latest initiative going forward seem slim to many.

The biggest obstacle to a compromise may actually be in Russia itself. Dmitry Rogozin, leader of the Duma faction Rodina (Motherland) stated that Lavrov and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have no right from a legal standpoint to make such bold declarations. He continued, saying that a peace treaty with Japan is “far from necessary for us,” and that Russia will not allow itself to be dictated to about sovereignty by an aggressor state from World War II. Sergei Ponomarev, a deputy of the local Sakhalin Oblast Duma, announced the region’s intention to block any efforts to cede territory to the Japanese, and he suggested that the local legislature would have no problem enlisting the aid of the Communist Party and the Liberal Democrats (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 15). Russian domestic opposition to a handover of any territory to the Japanese has been virulent since the early 1990s.

Nevertheless, the timing may be very good for both sides. The Russian government just recently completed settlement of the long-standing territorial dispute with China, despite strong local opposition in the Far East (BBC Monitoring, October 27). Additionally, Putin’s recent re-election as president and his firm control of the Duma suggest that he may have the clout to push through an agreement with Japan. Similarly, in Japan Prime Minister Koizumi recently retained his post as party president and has amassed a strong political base. Koizumi has made it clear that he desires to go down in history as the Japanese Prime Minister who signed the peace treaty with Russia (Kommersant, November 15). Additionally, it has been suggested that both sides are eager to shore up their respective geopolitical positions in the face of a rising China (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 15; Vremya novosti, November 16).

It remains to be seen whether both nations have the creativity and courage to come up with a bold compromise in which neither side comes off looking like the loser.