Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 56

Russia’s longstanding dispute with Japan over control of the four South Kuril Islands was back in the headlines this month, as domestic developments in both countries dealt a serious blow to negotiations aimed at resolving the territorial row. The latest deadlock demonstrated anew just how emotive the territorial issue is for both countries–and how central to their bilateral ties–despite the enormous changes in the international environment since the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Indeed, some four years after the two countries launched an initiative aimed at resolving the Cold War-era dispute, negotiations on control of the islands and on a related peace treaty appear to be back where they started. There seems little prospect for any significant, near-term renewal of momentum in the peace treaty and territorial talks, moreover, primarily because of Japan’s worsening domestic political situation, but also because of growing popular opposition in Russia to any concessions on the islands issue.

Analysis of the territorial dispute and peace treaty negotiations has been complicated over the past year by the fact that details of the talks have been kept secret (though versions have frequently been leaked to the media) and by the penchant for Japanese and Russian officials involved in the talks to issue inconsistent or contradictory accounts in their official and unofficial statements. Reports published over the past two weeks, however, have filled in some of the details, and paint the following picture.

They identify a March 2001 summit meeting between President Vladimir Putin and then Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori as a key date. At that time, Mori reportedly advanced, and the Russian side apparently accepted, a proposal for a “two-track” approach to the islands dispute that was based on a 1956 Soviet-Japanese joint declaration. The 1956 document called for the two countries to sign a peace treaty (formally ending World War II), after which the two smaller of the four islands in question–Shikotan and the Habomai group–would be returned to Japan. The two-track approach was sure to be controversial, in Japan because of overwhelming sentiment for a return of all four islands, and in Russia because it suggested a willingness by the Kremlin to make territorial concessions to Tokyo. Those who supported the two-track approach, however, argued that it might provide a means of overcoming the long deadlock over the islands and thereby open the way to a peace treaty and a full normalization of political and economic relations between Russia and Japan.

The problem is that the Japanese side was in fact never prepared to accept anything less than the return of all four islands, and the Russians appear to have been willing–at most–to return only the smaller two. This essential contradiction became ever more evident in the wake of Mori’s fall from power last spring, and his eventual replacement by Junichiro Koizumi, Japan’s current prime minister. Koizumi, moreover, appointed as foreign minister Makiko Tanaka, a reform-minded outsider who wanted to take a harder line on the territorial issue than Mori had. Subsequent negotiations between Russia and Japan on the peace treaty and territorial issues, which would have been difficult in any event, were thus further complicated by inconsistencies in the position staked out by the Japanese side. These inconsistencies were in part a product of tensions within the Japanese Foreign Ministry between Tanaka and an entrenched bureaucracy that was resistant both to her reform efforts and to the changes that she wished to effect with respect to relations with Russia (and with the United States). The battle within the Foreign Ministry ultimately led to Tanaka’s demise; she was fired in late January and replaced by Yoriko Kawaguchi, a relative political novice. The firing of the popular Tanaka had several important immediate effects. It triggered a sharp downturn in Koizumi’s own popularity, one that now threatens his political future. It also threw relations with Russia–and the peace treaty and territorial talks–into limbo. A visit to Tokyo by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov this past February, which began only hours after Kawaguchi’s appointment, proceeded awkwardly and ended inconclusively (see the Monitor, February 5).