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Russia: Kuril Islands Dispute With Japan Nears Resolution

  • Floriana Fossato

Moscow, 16 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi have jointly pledged to resolve the long-standing Russo-Japanese dispute over four Kuril Islands within 14 months.

The two leaders signed the so-called "Moscow Declaration" that also expressed the two countries' determination to conclude a peace treaty by the end of 2000.

The signing came after the two met briefly yesterday for talks.

The Kurils are a chain of Pacific islands off the Russian mainland. Tokyo claimed title to the four disputed islands --Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islets-- in a treaty with Russia in 1875. The Soviet Union took them back in the closing days of World War Two, a move Japan has claimed was illegal ever since.

Some 17,000 impoverished residents live on the islands. Many of them have said they would welcome Japanese administration. But for many Russians, including State Duma deputies, the issue of the Kurils is a matter of national prestige. The Kurils are also important to both countries because they are located in prime fishing waters.

The dispute over the four islands has prevented Russia and Japan from signing a formal peace treaty for the past 53 years. Obuchi's visit is the first official one by a Japanese prime minister to Moscow in 25 years. Russian and Japanese diplomats say that at yesterday's meeting between Yeltsin and Obuchi, they agreed to set up a joint committee to promote economic cooperation on the islands and a second joint body on territorial delimitation.

The formal declaration is said not to have spelled out concretely how the conflict will be resolved. The Russian Foreign Ministry said only that the declaration focused on the principles of cooperation and mutual respect.

Last spring, Japan made a formal proposal to Russia about the islands. Its contents were never made public, for fear of a negative reaction from Yeltsin's communist and nationalist opponents who control the Duma. But it was widely reported that the document proposed giving Japan eventual sovereignty over the islands, although it allowed for continued Russian administration for the time being.

The Interfax news agency today quoted Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Vladimir Lukin as saying "Japan proposed that its sovereignty over the islands be recognized, but that Russia continue administrating them." Lukin is a member of the moderate Yabloko political group.

But Lukin also said that Russia would, in his words, "agree to examine the organization of joint activity on the islands only if continued Russian sovereignty is guaranteed."

Lukin added that the dispute can only be resolved through political will. He said Japan must "help Russia overcome its (current) difficult (financial) situation." He said that then, Russia would be under "a moral obligation to decide how to respond."

Aleksandr Chudodeev, a Russian foreign-affairs commentator, told RFE/RL that the Russian government has, in his phrase, "turned Japan's original proposal upside-down." He said the Japanese government is likely to "reflect" on the matter until next Spring. Obuchi held talks on Friday (Nov. 13) with Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov focused on details of the remaining half of a $800 million loan Japan promised last Summer as part of an IMF-led package aimed at helping Russian reforms. Since then, western officials have expressed concern that Moscow is backtracking on reform measures.

Russian officials have suggested the money could be a crucial factor in balancing the country's budget for the fourth quarter of this year.

During his three-day visit, which ends today, Prime Minister Obuchi reiterated an official Japanese invitation to Yeltsin to make a state visit to Tokyo in the Spring. But Yeltsin's continuing health problems could interfere.