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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Voting On The Kuriles?

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 18 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - A suggestion that Russia should hold a plebiscite to resolve its territorial dispute with Japan over the Kurile Islands is unlikely to settle that long-standing issue between these two countries.

Even more, the holding of any such country-wide referendum on islands Moscow seized from Japan at the end of World War II would simultaneously inflame nationalist sentiments in Russia and create a precedent that some inside Russia might hope to use against Moscow.

But it is a measure of the desire of many in both Russia and Japan to find a way out of this intractable problem that a former senior Russian official proposed this idea in Tokyo and that the Japanese media have given it so much attention.

On Wednesday, the Kyodo News Agency reported that Aleksandr Lebed, former Russian national security advisor and unsuccessful Russian presidential candidate, had told a Tokyo audience that Russia should hold a country-wide plebiscite on the future of the Kuriles.

Those small islands, known in Japan as the Northern Territories, have been a major obstacle to the improvement of relations between Moscow and Tokyo and to increased Japanese investment in the Russian Federation.

In his speech, Lebed reportedly acknowledged that Russian public opinion was overwhelmingly against giving the islands back to Japan, but he suggested that the Russian government should start a campaign to change public opinion and make such a plebiscite a real possibility.

Lebed's proposal follows a decision by the Japanese government to improve its ties with Moscow despite the lack of a resolution of the islands issue.

And it comes only weeks before Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and Russian President Boris Yeltsin are scheduled to meet in the Russian Far Eastern city of Krasnoyarsk to map out a further rapprochement between their two countries.

Lebed's proposal is certain to infuriate many Russians who view the Kurile islands as a trophy confirming their status as one of the great powers who won World War II.

Were a plebiscite to be held, their views would be widely aired and at least at present would gain a great deal of support. Indeed, a vote intended to reduce tensions between Moscow and Tokyo might have the opposite effect and generate xenophobic feelings in Russia itself.

But holding such a plebiscite would entail three other consequences, each far greater than a new outburst of anti-Japanese feelings and hence each a compelling reason for Yeltsin to ignore the suggestions of his former aide.

First, another round of voting any time soon on any issue not currently mandated for a vote might open the way not only for the expression of radical views on a variety of issues but also for the mobilization of extremist groups against Russian democracy.

Second, other groups in Russian society and outside might seek to make a plebiscite on the Kuriles into a precedent for plebiscites on other issues, such as Chechen independence or the future status of Kaliningrad.

And third, and perhaps most important, many Russians would view such a vote as a reopening of the discussion on the international status and even territorial integrity of their country, a debate many in Moscow would like to get past.

Recent public opinion polls show that Russians want to stop feeling guilty about themselves and their country. Such a plebiscite would inevitably renew precisely those feelings and the inevitable chauvinist response to them.

Consequently, Lebed's proposal in Tokyo is unlikely to go anywhere fast. But it does serve as a reminder of just how difficult it is going to be to find a way to square the circle on this issue.