Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 4

Yesterday’s report comes as Russian-Japanese talks on a peace treaty–launched last year with much fanfare and some optimism–appear to have become deadlocked over the Kuril Islands territorial issue. Russian officials, who have never suggested that Moscow intended to make concessions to Japan on the islands issue, have spoken in recent weeks with growing bluntness over the need to put aside the territorial issue in order to proceed with work on the peace treaty (Kyodo, December 2; Itar-Tass, December 9).

By contrast, Japanese officials have consistently insisted that any Russian-Japanese peace treaty must include a settlement of the islands issue. That “settlement” has generally been interpreted to mean a return of the four disputed islands–called the “northern territories” in Japan–to Tokyo. With that goal in mind, former Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in April of last year handed a proposal to Boris Yeltsin which, in effect, called for redrawing the Russian-Japanese border in a fashion which would ultimately bring the islands under Japanese control.

Moscow, bound to respond to the Japanese proposal, did so during this past November’s Moscow summit between Yeltsin and current Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. Although details of Yeltsin’s response have not been made public, it reportedly called for negotiations on a border treaty (in essence, the territorial issue) which would be conducted separately from talks on a broader peace treaty. A third set of negotiations–on Russian-Japanese joint economic development of the islands–would be set in motion simultaneously. The Russian side suggested that cooperation in this area might help build a level of trust between the two countries that would ultimately permit resolution of the territorial issue (see the Monitor, December 3).

To complicate matters further, however, there were new reports in late December that Moscow actually intends to transform the Kuril Islands into a special economic zone, one which would allow foreign companies to rent land and adjacent waters for up to ninety-nine years (Kyodo, December 24). That purported plan, versions of which had earlier been denied by Russian government sources, dovetails with demands by local officials on the Kurils that the islanders be allowed to rent land to Japanese business concerns for up to ninety-nine years. That demand has been seen as an attempt to force the federal authorities in Moscow to pay greater attention to the increasingly impoverished islands. The special zone plan would, in any event, entail no loss of Russian sovereignty over the south Kuril Islands, a fact which would probably dampen any Japanese enthusiasm for it.

A Kremlin official, meanwhile, said on December 25 that Boris Yeltsin is likely to visit Japan for the next in a series of Russian-Japanese summit meetings in June of this year. The visit had earlier been tentatively scheduled for March (Kyodo, December 25). The two sides hope to make additional progress on the peace treaty during the Yeltsin visit. The ailing Russian president was barely able to play host during Obuchi’s November visit to Moscow, however. Despite a recent burst of activity, it remains unclear whether Yeltsin’s still fragile health will permit a visit to Japan in the spring.