Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 86

Russia and Japan resumed their diplomatic dance over the four disputed Kuril Islands this past weekend as Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori traveled to St. Petersburg for an informal summit meeting with Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin. For Mori, the stopover was the first in a longer tour abroad which will also take him across Europe and to North America to meet leaders of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations. That it was part of a longer trip, however, did not detract from the symbolic importance of Mori’s arrival in St. Petersburg–as Putin and various Russian commentators noted. The visit marked Mori’s first trip abroad since he took over the reins of the Japanese government from Keizo Obuchi, who collapsed suddenly from a stroke on April 2 and remains in a coma. Mori’s first month in office has been a rocky one, and his decision to make St. Petersburg his first foreign visit would appear to underscore the importance he attaches to relations with Russia and, especially, to an early resolution of the Kuril Islands territorial issue.

This dispute has been the primary obstacle to fully normalized relations between Russia and Japan since the close of World War II, and remains the key to ongoing negotiations between the two countries aimed at finalizing a peace agreement formally ending the war. And because the issue is so contentious, Moscow in particular went out of its way both before and after Mori’s arrival to underscore that the Russian and Japanese leaders had no intention of discussing the islands directly. But that was to some degree diplomatic doublespeak. The territorial issue is inextricably bound up with the peace treaty negotiations because of Tokyo’s insistence that resolution of the former is a precondition for finalization of the latter. And Mori spoke repeatedly prior to his arrival in St. Petersburg of the need for Russia and Japan to meet an earlier deadline–one set by former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and former Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto–which calls for the two countries to finish work on the peace treaty by the end of this year.

Moscow, in contrast, has tended to attach less importance to the 2000 deadline date, and has tried as well to decouple the territorial issue both from the peace treaty negotiations and from separate talks on Russian-Japanese economic cooperation. This was true during the last year of Yeltsin’s term in office and all indications suggested that Putin followed much the same course during his two meetings with Mori on April 29. For the Kremlin, the dilemma has been to avoid even the appearance of a willingness to make territorial concessions to Japan over the islands–something which Russian nationalists will not stand for–while simultaneously stringing Tokyo along enough to convince the Japanese to move forward on other key bilateral issues. The contrasting Japanese and Russian positions in this regard are crystallized in two competing draft proposals for a resolution of the territorial rift. The Japanese plan reportedly calls for a redrawing of the Russian-Japanese border in a fashion which would ultimately bring the four islands–called the Northern Territories in Japan–under Tokyo’s control. The Russian plan, offered as a response, reportedly seeks to move the peace treaty negotiations forward while postponing consideration of the territorial issue.

The inability of the two countries to resolve this impasse has been reflected in Moscow’s reticence to schedule a formal summit meeting between the leaders of the two countries at which these differences would have to be confronted. Under Yeltsin, this was relatively easy–the Kremlin had only to point to his health difficulties or to ongoing political instability in the country as an excuse for yet another summit postponement. This is not the case with Putin, however, and was one reason why Mori apparently pushed hard in St. Petersburg for a final decision on an early summit date in Japan with Putin. He was only partly satisfied on that score. Japan was reportedly hoping to get Putin to agree to a July 24-25 summit meeting, one which would follow the July 21-23 summit of the G-7 countries and Russia–the G-8–in Okinawa. Sources suggested that the Russian side, in turn, was aiming for a date in November. Negotiations on this score were reportedly intense, but sources from both sides ultimately indicated that Putin had agreed to travel to Japan in August of this year. An exact date was not named.

The atmosphere during this first meeting of these two newly minted leaders was apparently good nonetheless. Reports suggested that Putin, who has a black belt in judo, has expressed admiration for many aspects of Japanese culture. Mori, for his part, is a rough-and-tumble rugby player whose father worked for many years to improve Russo-Japanese relations. Indeed, Putin praised Mori’s father prior to their talks on April 29, describing him as a man “who expressed great personal interest in Russia, contributed greatly to the promotion of friendly relations between Japan and Russia” (Reuters, April 29; Yomiuri Shimbun, May 1). It remains unclear whether the two leader developed the sort of quick affinity which has reportedly developed between Putin and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, but the two did emerge from their April 29 talks with the announcement that they had decided to call each other by their nicknames–“Yoshi” and “Volodya.”

Of more practical importance, Putin and Mori agreed during their talks to reaffirm their predecessors commitment to conclude the peace treaty agreement by the end of this year. They also discussed preparations for the upcoming G-8 meeting in Okinawa, and extended their scheduled meeting in order to better address a broad range of international and bilateral issues. Mori, meanwhile, indicated that Tokyo is prepared to offer Moscow support on some serious issues, presumably in hopes of gaining concessions on the territorial question. The Japanese leader reportedly reiterated Tokyo’s support for Russia’s war in Chechnya. He also suggested that Tokyo might facilitate Russian ambitions to host a G-8 summit in the year 2003. In return, Putin reportedly told Mori that he would support Japan’s bid to gain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (Western and Russian agencies, Kyodo, April 26-20; New York Times, April 30; Yomiuri Shimbun, April 30).