"This was a declaration ratified by the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, which offered to hand over two southern islands to Japan and put an end to the story, establishing a border and signing a peace treaty," Lavrov said. "For various reasons, this didn't happen in the 1950s. But as the successor state, we recognize this declaration as valid. However, the realization of this idea requires a dialogue between the parties."
Speaking a day later, Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed his foreign minister's words.
The Kurile chain includes some 56 islands and lies between Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido and Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula. The four southernmost islands were occupied by Soviet forces following Japan's wartime defeat in 1945. The islands -- which Japan refers to as the Northern Territories -- were formally annexed a year later, a move Tokyo has never recognized and which has prevented the two countries from signing a formal peace treaty.
In 1956, when Moscow and Tokyo reestablished diplomatic relations, the two sides signed a joint declaration under which the Soviet Union agreed to return two of the disputed islands, after signing a peace treaty.
That is the declaration Lavrov referred to in his interview on 14 November. But his statement is basically a reiteration of the 1993 Tokyo Declaration between the two countries, which affirmed that "all treaties and other international agreements between Japan and the Soviet Union continue to be applied between Japan and the Russian Federation." As such, it does not seem to open new ground for compromise.
The problem of resolving the Kurile issue is two-fold. First, Japan wants all four islands returned. Even if it were willing to settle for just two, the islands in question -- Habomai and Shikotan -- are mere rocky outposts compared to the territories Russia wants to keep -- Iturup and Kunashir -- which are each several times larger, with developed population centers, as well as valuable adjacent fishing territories.
The second obstacle is that Japan wants at least some of the islands returned before any peace deal is signed, not after, as Eric Due of the "Japan Times" told RFER/RL in a telephone interview from Tokyo.
"Tokyo's position is that there would have to be some sort of property return before it attempted to sign the treaty -- whether that be for all four islands or just two," Due said. "In other words, the timing of the return and the timing of the signing of the treaty is kind of like an exchange of hostages. You don't just set yours free until the others start walking your way."
Nevertheless, in diplomacy, what one says is often secondary to how and when it is said. The fact that Lavrov and Putin chose to bring up the Kuriles just a few days before they fly to Chile for the annual summit of the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation organization may be significant.
Japan is, of course, a member of the group, and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said through a spokesman today that he is ready to meet for bilateral talks with Putin on the sidelines of the summit. Putin is also due to visit Japan for a state visit next year, prompting further speculation that Russia may now be seeking to lay the groundwork for a deal.
Due said that Koizumi, in his negotiations with North Korea over the return of abductees, demonstrated he is willing to accept partial solutions as better than none at all and may prove flexible to Moscow's proposals on the Kuriles, despite Tokyo's official stance.
"He had to, and did, win partial victories with North Korea in getting at least the known surviving abductees back from North Korea," Due said. "This would be kind of the same sort of game in which he'd be able to get what he could back from Russia perhaps. And so I would guess that from the Tokyo standpoint, there would be opposition to not drawing a line at all four islands. But then I think there would probably be backroom discussions going on, saying: 'Let's take what we can get now and work on the next two later.'"
The motivation for an agreement -- even if imperfect -- is clear for Japan. But why would Moscow suddenly choose to revisit the Kurile issue?
The answer may lie with a massive project that is developing Russia's gas and oil fields off the coast of nearby Sakhalin Island. China is currently negotiating to build a pipeline to carry the oil and gas to northeastern China from Sakhalin, via Russia's Pacific coast.
But a Japanese offer would be more advantageous to Moscow, according to Due.
"Japan...is willing to develop this pipeline all the way to Vladivostok, with the idea that its ships and other countries' ships would be able to share in these resources," Due said. "And so, effectively, it wouldn't all be China's call."
Russia may figure that a couple of rocky outposts may finally be a price worth paying for a pipeline deal with Japan.