Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 207

The seemingly endless negotiations between Russia and Japan over a proposed peace treaty and the related Kuril Islands territorial dispute resumed in Moscow late last week during a visit by Japan’s foreign minister. During a two-day stay in Moscow Yohei Kono met with President Vladimir Putin and both Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko. The talks were a follow-up to this past September’s Japanese-Russian summit meeting in Tokyo and to another round of negotiations–also held in the Japanese capital–which took place on October 23-24 between deputy foreign ministers from the two countries.

The October talks in particular appeared to signal that there might at last be some small movement on the territorial dispute and that Moscow might be moving, even if only a bit, to accommodate Japanese pressure for a diplomatic breakthrough by the end of this year. Tokyo has consistently insisted on linking negotiations regarding the peace treaty (which would bring a formal end to World War II) to a successful resolution of the Kuril Islands issue. By successful Japanese officials clearly mean the return of the four disputed islands–called the “Northern Territories” in Japan–to Tokyo’s control. Moscow had sought to delay consideration of the territorial issue and urged instead that the two countries move forward on the peace treaty negotiations. During the October 23-24 talks, however, Russian officials appeared for the first time to accept the link between the territorial and the peace treaty talks, and to give a nod toward Japanese efforts to pick up the pace of the negotiations. In 1997 then Russian President Boris Yeltsin and then Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto had agreed to seek finalization of the peace treaty accord by the year 2000. Japan has continued to stick by that deadline; Moscow has tended to suggest that the negotiations be left more open-ended (see the Monitor, October 27).

It is difficult to say whether last week’s talks maintained the diplomatic momentum which had appeared to build during the October meeting in Tokyo. On the positive side, Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov told reporters that Putin had indicated during his meeting with Kono Russia’s preparedness to deal with all the problems now afflicting Russian-Japanese relations–a reference, presumably, to the territorial row. “We will act constructively in all these directions, including further examination of issues linked to the peace treaty,” Ivanov said. Following a meeting between Ivanov and Kono on November 3, moreover, the two sides announced that they had agreed to hammer out the details of a new plan–the specifics of which were not revealed–which would boost efforts to solve the territorial row and finalize the peace treaty. According to some reports, the new plan involves a recent Russian initiative aimed at making a 1956 Soviet-Japanese declaration the basis for a settlement in this area. The 1956 accord called for Moscow to return two of the four disputed islands after the peace treaty was signed by both parties. Reports have suggested that Russia and Japan may now be negotiating over whether the deal would be limited only to the two islands in question–a position presumably taken by Moscow–or whether it would also leave open for negotiation the issue of Japanese reacquisition of the remaining two, larger islands. In a suggestion that Moscow has acquiesced to Tokyo’s efforts to intensify the pace of these negotiations, there were reports last week that a planned meeting between Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori–to take place in Brunei on November 15–will be given the status of a full-fledged Russian-Japanese summit meeting (Reuters, November 3; Japan Times, November 5).

Several related developments from last week, however, suggest that negotiations remain complicated. There was something of a minor row on November 1, for example, when reports surfaced in Tokyo suggesting that the Kremlin had postponed a visit by Mori to Russia tentatively scheduled for late this year. Although the reports were ultimately denied, some Japanese news sources suggested that Mori had chosen to postpone the visit because of what Tokyo sees as Russian intransigence on the territorial dispute issue. A member of Mori’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party was quoted as saying that the “view that there will be no progress at all on the territorial issue has intensified, meaning there is no favorable environment for the prime minister to make a visit.” Indeed, speculation in Japan focused on the possibility that Mori, who is embattled politically at home, could not afford to travel to Moscow for a visit that would do little to advance Japanese efforts with regard to the territorial issue (AFP, Russian agencies, November 1).

Whether there was any substance to those reports, subsequent remarks by a senior aide to Mori suggested that there is growing irritation and impatience in Tokyo over the pace and direction of Russian-Japanese peace treaty negotiations. In an interview given to the Russian newspaper Segodnya, Yasuhisa Kawamura charged that bilateral relations between the two countries had entered a period of “stagnation.” He also drew an unusually explicit connection between Japanese financial aid to Russia and perceived Russian intransigence not only with regard to the Kuril Islands, but in connection to more general bilateral business dealings as well. “Stagnation is observed not only in the handling of the territorial issue but also in the economic sphere,” Kawamura said. He suggested that Russia needed to do more to justify the US$6 billion worth of credits and investment which Japan has thus far put into Russia. Japan has done its part to promote relations between the two countries–and is prepared to do more, Kawamura said. But “Moscow must [also] demonstrate its political will and make a contribution to the development of our relations” (AFP, Segodnya, November 3).