Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 155

In recent weeks Russia and Japan have stepped up their diplomatic sparring in connection with negotiations aimed at concluding a peace treaty and resolving differences relative to the single issue which has thus far been the major impediment to a treaty agreement: the Kuril Islands territorial dispute. To date, Tokyo has insisted that the treaty agreement–which would bring a formal end to World War II for Russia and Japan–can be finalized only if the two countries first resolve Japan’s claim on the four Russian-held south Kuril Islands. Moscow, in turn, has insisted that it will not compromise Russia’s territorial integrity (shorthand for saying that it will not give up the islands) and has attempted to decouple the territorial dispute from both the broader treaty negotiations and efforts to promote greater Russian-Japanese economic cooperation.

The issues involved are becoming critical for Tokyo, which fears that President Boris Yeltsin’s expected departure from office next year could doom the two countries to starting the entire peace treaty and territorial negotiations over from scratch. The Japanese government is therefore pushing for the two countries to fulfill an earlier pledge which calls for the peace treaty to be signed by the year 2000. The Japanese are thus hoping that Yeltsin will travel to Tokyo early this fall (the Russian president has already failed to meet a commitment to visit Japan this past spring) for a summit meeting with Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. Russian government officials, however, have remained coy. Although they have recently confirmed that Yeltsin will travel to Japan this year, they have refused to set a specific date.

In the course of a series of bilateral summit meetings held over the past two years, Japan and Russia put a pair of still unpublished proposals on the negotiating table. The first, offered by then Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in April 1998, would reportedly give Moscow continued administrative rights over the four islands but calls for the Russian-Japanese border in the region to be redrawn so that the islands would ultimately and once again fall under Japanese sovereignty. A Russian counterproposal, offered by Yeltsin to Obuchi last November, is said to call for the two countries to sign the peace treaty by the year 2000, as pledged, but to stipulate simultaneously their intention to resolve the territorial dispute in a separate treaty to be worked out later.