Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 13

According to Ten, impetus for the proposal to declare the disputed south Kuril Islands a special economic zone came from Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and had the approval of President Boris Yeltsin. Primakov reportedly intends to submit a bill to the Russian Duma containing the new proposal (Itar-Tass, Kyodo, January 19).

Although Russian sources had earlier denied that the Kremlin planned to turn the islands into a special economic zone, developments over the past few days suggest that Yeltsin had in fact made such a proposal–the one outlined by Ten–to Obuchi during their November summit meeting in Moscow. That “counter-proposal” was a response to an earlier Japanese proposal–one submitted to Yeltsin last year by then Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto–which reportedly called for a redrawing of the Russian-Japanese border so that all four islands would fall under Japanese jurisdiction. Not surprisingly, a number of Russian officials had made clear that Moscow considered Hashimoto’s proposal unacceptable.

Reports from the Russian Far East yesterday suggested that the new Russian proposal–which was apparently aired officially for the first time to local government officials–may run into some opposition at the regional level. Sakhalin leaders were said to be insistent that the proposed special economic zone should include the entire region–not just the four disputed islands. They also reportedly expressed suspicions that creating the Russian–Japanese commission on border issues–one of those commissions set to convene tomorrow–represents a first step in a Kremlin decision to cede the south Kurils to Japan. Ten reportedly reassured local leaders that all intergovernmental agreements between Russia and Japan related to the islands would be subject to ratification by the regional parliament (Itar-Tass, January 18).

Both Ten and local regional leaders, moreover, also said that the level of federal aid to the Kurils envisioned in the government’s draft federal budget–which amounts to twenty million rubles–is insufficient. Ten suggested that sum appeared particularly paltry in view of both the economic and geopolitical importance of the islands (Itar-Tass, January 19).

The Kuril Islands have been especially hard hit by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the sharp curtailment of government subsidies. That has led the increasingly impoverished inhabitants to demand more aid from Moscow and to warn of growing pro-Japanese sentiment on the islands. A program of federal aid to the islands, announced with some fanfare by the Kremlin last April, has reportedly done little to improve circumstances for inhabitants of the islands.