Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 13

The Russian government appears in recent days to have floated new details of a proposal which would promote joint Russian-Japanese economic development of the disputed south Kuril Islands as one means of boosting broader talks aimed at concluding a peace treaty between the two countries. Details of the Russian proposal emerged as a Russian State Duma delegation traveled to the far eastern Sakhalin region–of which the disputed islands are a part–to take part in hearings devoted to the islands. The latest developments come on the eve of talks, scheduled to start tomorrow in Moscow, involving two new Russian-Japanese commissions created during a November summit meeting between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. The two commissions will deal, separately, with joint economic development of the four disputed islands and with efforts to demarcate the Russian-Japanese border in that part of the world.

According to Russian State Duma deputy Yuri Ten, who was part of the delegation visiting the Sakhalin region, the new Russian proposal would involve creating a common economic space, one to include the four Russian-controlled south Kuril Islands and the main Japanese island of Hokkaido. The four disputed islands would themselves be declared a special economic zone, in which Japanese companies would be permitted to lease land for up to ninety-nine years. Ten described the proposal–including both the common economic space and the special economic zone–as the best way for Russia and Japan to overcome Tokyo’s insistence that the islands be returned to Japan. He stressed, moreover, that under the new proposal the islands would never actually be ceded to Japan (Russian agencies, January 18-19; Kyodo, January 19).

Yesterday, meanwhile, in remarks apparently related to Ten’s proposals, Russian diplomatic sources emphasized Moscow’s willingness to deal “flexibly” with the issue of joint economic development of the four islands. The sources also made clear, however, that the Russian side was under no illusion that an agreement with Japan on this issue would be easy to finalize. Like Ten, they appeared to emphasize that this proposal might provide a way for the two countries to move gradually toward resolving their long-standing territorial dispute over the islands (Russian agencies, January 19).

Tokyo is now insisting that signing a peace treaty between the two countries–and thus fully normalizing bilateral relations–depends on resolving the territorial dispute. Tokyo has also been reluctant to get involved in joint economic development of the islands, believing that cooperation in this area would strengthen Russia’s claim to sovereignty there. However, Moscow has said bluntly in recent months that there can be no quick or easy resolution of the territorial issue, and that the two countries should therefore move forward independently in the peace treaty negotiations.