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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Movement On Sakhalin?

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 23 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - A recent flurry of diplomatic activity suggests Moscow and Tokyo are seeking to reduce the political consequences of their territorial dispute over four small islands that the Soviet Union seized from Japan at the end of World War II.

But the expulsion this week of four Japanese fishing boats from what Russia says are its territorial waters around islands that Moscow calls the Kuriles and the Japanese call the Northern Territories highlights just how difficult any such movement will be for both countries.

Last week, Moscow announced that the number of Russian troops on the disputed islands fell last year to a post-war low of 3,500. And on Wednesday, the Tokyo daily Asahi Shimbun reported that another Russian official had said that all Russian troops would be withdrawn from one of the four islands by the end of June.

Greeted by the Japanese who have long insisted that Russia must return the islands for relations between the two countries to improve, these reductions are the result of a commitment Russian President Boris Yeltsin made in January 1993 to defuse the territorial conflict through political rather than military measures.

In response and in advance of his arrival in Moscow on Thursday, Japanese Foreign Minister Yukihiko Ikeda said that he would continue to press for the return of the islands but that Tokyo was committed to what he called a "multi-layered" set of relationships with Moscow.

To that end, the Japanese diplomat said that Tokyo would welcome Russian participation in the G-7 talks in Denver, would be willing to provide retraining for any Russian troops withdrawn from the Northern Territories, and would expand its investment in the economically hard-pressed Russian Far East and Siberia.

Moreover, Ikeda said, his government hopes to open a consulate in Southern Sakhalin, a place in which Japan and some Western countries have already made extensive investments in oil and other extractive industries.

Such words from both sides suggest that at least some in Moscow and Tokyo are willing to bracket this issue, agreeing to disagree as it were, and thus be in a position to move on to other questions of potentially mutual interest.

But the limits to such agreement were highlighted by the Russian coast guard's expulsion on Wednesday of four Japanese fishing boats from the waters about these four islands, an act that has more to do with national pride on both sides than with the question of protecting any one country's fishing rights.

For Russia, the Kurile Islands are not only a trophy from World War II but a symbol of Russia's status as a great power and one of the World War II allies against the axis powers. Because of that, virtually no Russian is willing to consider giving them back, and no Russian politician from Yeltsin on down is willing to brave the firestorm that a concession of that type would ignite.

Indeed, reports in the Russian media about the actions of the Russian coast guard this week were cast in a tone of justified moral outrage against the Japanese.

At the same time, for Japan, the return of the Northern Territories has been Tokyo's longstanding precondition for the full normalization of ties with Russia. Few Japanese and even fewer Japanese politicians have been willing to provide Russia with the kinds of assistnce -- economic, political, and diplomatic -- that Moscow seeks unless Russia makes some concessions.

Yeltsin's decision in 1993 to move toward a political settlement of the issue has allowed Tokyo to do more than it ever was willing to do before. But it and more recent Russian military withdrawals has also created rising expectations in Japan that Moscow is prepared to take the final step.

That is almost certainly not going to happen this week during Ikedo's meetings in Moscow. But after the recent Russian withdrawals, both Moscow and Tokyo may now be able to find a way around this dispute, one that could lead to a significant shift in Japan's official approach to the issue, even if it does not change underlying Japanese popular attitudes.