Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 107

While the Kosovo peace negotiations dominated headlines in Russia and elsewhere this past weekend, Moscow was also the scene of high-level talks between Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura and top Russian officials. Komura’s May 28-30 visit was aimed at reviving flagging efforts by Moscow and Tokyo to conclude–by the end of this year–a peace treaty which would bring a formal close to World War II.

In late 1997 the two countries had pledged to work toward the signing of the peace treaty by the year 2000, but those efforts have foundered on continuing differences over the Kuril Islands territorial dispute. Moscow has proposed postponing discussion of the territorial dispute until a future date while moving forward now on the treaty. Japan, however, which has placed a priority on recovering the four disputed islands, has insisted that a resolution of the territorial dispute must be part of any treaty agreement. With that goal in mind, Tokyo has made a proposal of its own which reportedly calls for a redrawing of the Japanese-Russian border to ultimately bring the islands back under Japanese sovereignty.

Although both sides spoke in positive terms about Komura’s visit this past weekend, it was unclear whether it had in fact served to get the Russian-Japanese negotiations back on track. The two sides did agree that Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi would meet on the sidelines of the Group of Seven–plus Russia–summit scheduled for June 18-20 in Cologne, Germany. They also confirmed that Yeltsin would travel to Japan for a summit meeting with Obuchi later this year, but apparently set no precise date for the meeting. Tokyo had to be disappointed by that omission. Japanese officials would prefer to see Yeltsin visit Japan sooner rather than later so that work on the peace treaty can move forward. Moscow, on the other hand, seems in no hurry to schedule a summit at which the two countries seem sure to clash over the territorial issue.

During his stay in Moscow, Komura held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and had a first meeting with newly named Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin. The latter said that relations with Japan remained a priority for Moscow and pledged that the change of government in Russia would not have an adverse impact on bilateral relations. Komura, however, reportedly acknowledged to reporters that the appointment of Stepashin was unlikely to promote any sort of quick breakthrough on the territorial issue. The Russian side, for its part, reportedly made note during the talks with Komura of Moscow’s continuing dissatisfaction over increased Japanese-U.S. defense cooperation (Kyodo, May 28-29; Itar-Tass, May 28-30; AP, May 29).

Russian leaders have expressed their unhappiness in recent months over legislation recently passed in Japan which will widen the scope of Japanese-U.S. military cooperation in Asia. Moscow has also objected to preliminary plans for Tokyo and Washington to work together in the development of a theater missile defense system.