But the visit has been postponed and Putin remains in Moscow. Instead, Foreign Minister Lavrov finds himself back in Tokyo, with the same vexing issue at the center of bilateral relations: how to resolve the 60-year-old dispute over the southern Kurile Islands – which Japan refers to as its Northern Territories.
Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura today called it the “one and only remaining obstacle” in relations between the two countries.
The Kurile chain includes 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 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 and broadening economic relations.
In late 2004 -- after decades of deadlock -- a compromise seemed possible. In November, both Lavrov and Putin announced that Russia recognized a 1956 declaration under which Moscow agreed to return two of the islands to Japan.
It was hoped that a breakthrough might be reached earlier this month during Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s trip to Moscow for the World War II-anniversary commemorations. But nothing happened.
Initial indications, after Lavrov’s first day of talks in Tokyo, are that no agreement will be reached this week either. Both sides said today that Putin will visit Japan later this year, but no date was set.
Eric Due, of the “Japan Times,” told RFE/RL on the telephone from Tokyo that he is not surprised. He attributed the optimism on both sides at the end of 2004 to what he called “wishful thinking” fed by hopes of an oil deal.
China and Japan have long been competing for access to Russia’s “black gold.” Russia indicated in 2004 that it favored a Japanese-financed plan to build a pipeline from Siberia to the Pacific Coast that would give Tokyo easy access to Russian crude.
"A few months back, we saw an initial story that said it looked like Japan was going to win out and the pipeline would be going to a Russian port on the Sea of Okhotsk; that would enable tankers from various countries to ‘come to the well,’ as it were, including Japan, which would have access to this oil," Due said. "And of course Japan would be expected to provide a lot of the funding for the project."
Recently, however, Moscow has told Japanese officials it might first build a connection to China. Japan’s relations with China are at a low and, with Beijing’s energy needs increasing every month, Tokyo fears it would not be left with much oil under this new plan.
Enthusiasm for a deal with Russia has seemingly evaporated. In any case, said Due, it is highly unlikely that any agreement could ever be reached given Putin’s and especially Koizumi’s domestic political considerations.
As he has shown on other foreign policy matters -- with China, for example -- Koizumi looks for political support to his Liberal Democratic Party’s conservative and nationalist wing. Due said they influence government policy, even if their views do not represent majority opinion.
"The former islanders who were evicted when Soviet forces took over those four islands in the closing days of World War II provide a fair amount of pressure, as do the other nationalist/rightist groups in Japan," Due said. "And those are the ones who are vocal. Whether or not the majority cares is another issue that isn’t really tapped, frankly."
This is not to say that the islands have only symbolic meaning to nationalists in Japan. Due noted that economic interests also drive Tokyo’s insistence for their return.
"There are definite economic benefits to having those territories back -- fishing being the main one," Due said. "Right now, Japan has to sign quota agreements to fish in those areas and periodically in the past Japanese trawlers have been impounded by the Soviet and Russian coast guard for alleged poaching. And we’re talking about a string of islands that basically start within almost a stone’s throw of Japan, in one of the bays off of northern Hokkaido."
Lavrov, speaking to journalists at the end of today’s talks, said no progress had been made so far on the islands issue. “It will take time,” he said.