Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 2

Boris Yeltsin’s December 31 resignation announcement rocked governments around the world, but was apparently a particular shock for the government of Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. Indeed, Japanese Foreign Ministry officials indicated after Yeltsin’s announcement that they had been assured by Russian officials only days earlier that the Russian president was still planning a spring summit visit to Japan. Tokyo is apparently now guessing that Yeltsin’s departure from office will force the cancellation of Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov’s planned visit to Tokyo late this month. That visit was to be devoted to laying the groundwork for the Yeltsin-Obuchi summit meeting (Kyodo, December 31).

But beyond the scheduling of the already long-overdue summit, Japanese leaders are probably concerned that Yeltsin’s resignation could finally extinguish fading hopes that the two countries might find a way this year to both sign a peace treaty formally ending World War II and agree on the disposition of the four disputed Kuril Islands. In 1997 the two countries initiated a warming of relations that aimed at resolving these two great issues by the year 2000. In the strictest sense, that deadline has come and gone. But Japanese officials had continued to push for a scheduling of the Yeltsin-Obuchi summit in the hope that the two men might still reach agreement on the peace treaty and the Kuril Islands territorial dispute before the end of the current year.

Before the end of Yeltsin’s term of office might be the more accurate description. Now, with Yeltsin gone and with an indeterminate new era starting in Russia, Japanese leaders probably fear that they will have to start their negotiations anew with a revamped–and more hardline–Kremlin leadership. Given the current jingoistic mood in Moscow, therefore, Tokyo’s hopes of negotiating a return of the Kuril Islands from Russia to Japan may be slimmer than ever.