Denver, Colorado; 24 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Japan has launched a quiet but determined effort to settle one of the more emotional and contentious issues remaining in Russia's foreign policy in the Pacific -- the unresolved question of the Kurile Islands. It is the dispute which has kept Russia and Japan from signing a formal end to World War II.
President Boris Yeltsin showed the depth of the problem when he commented to reporters as he left Moscow last week for the Denver Summit of the Eight: "At the moment, neither the public nor I are prepared for this. This is a very painful issue."
When Yeltsin visited Tokyo for his first visit in 1993, the two nations issued the Tokyo Declaration under which both undertook to settle the territorial issue of the four islands off the northern tip of Hokkaido -- taken by the Soviet Union during World war II -- and thus completely normalize relations with the signing of a peace treaty.
As a start on that goal, Japan and Russia opened talks on allowing Japanese fishermen to ply the waters within the 12 mile territorial limit of the islands. But after two years of discussions, there has been little progress.
Senior Japanese government officials say that prompted Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and others to decide it was time to break down the emotional barriers that seemed to be keeping Russian-Japanese relations from progressing as well as Moscow's ties with western nations in Europe.
The Summit of the Eight in Denver was the place chosen to launch this effort and Hashimoto wasted no time in making the approach to Yeltsin.
In their one-on-one meeting over breakfast last Friday in a downtown Denver hotel, looking out onto the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, Hashimoto said to Yeltsin, in effect, "We've got to break through this reserve -- let's you and I get together in our part of the world for some informal, personal time where we can build some personal trust and rapport."
Senior Japanese officials say that Hashimoto proposed that any time Yeltsin should be in the Russian Far East, Hashimoto would join him for a casual weekend together away from the formality of visits in Moscow or Tokyo.
Said one official: "The idea is particularly to utilize the weekend and spend time together as friends, and discuss various issues without any obstacle or any restriction -- to talk as friends."
The Japanese official added that this idea is "a rather big step" from the more than two years of political dialogue between the two countries at the ministerial level.
It involves a merging of two flows -- the formal political discussions and the personal relations of the leaders themselves, which has been growing as Yeltsin has recovered his health and the two have been meeting in the G-7 arena.
Japanese officials see this as a critical need to push normalizing relations to the highest level.
Japanese officials say that when Hashimoto proposed the informal weekend meetings, Yeltsin replied: " 'Charasho' -- he agrees."
Yeltsin also came prepared to try to improve ties with Japan. He proposed establishment of a telephone hotline between Moscow and Japan so that the two leaders could more quickly and easily talk to each other.
Russian officials say the telephone links are an important symbol of improving relations. A spokesman says that in addition to the most famous "hotline" between Moscow and Washington, Russia actually maintains similar links with most of the nations of East and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union as well as with most other members of the G-7 group of major industrial nations.
Yeltsin's spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky said of the discussions with Hashimoto that the "two sides reached mutual understanding and found a common language." He said they also agreed that the talks on the fishing agreement would be "sped up."
In addition to the personal approach with Yeltsin, the Japanese know that money talks too. Yastrzhembsky said the two sides also talked about investment in the Kuriles and nearby Sakhalin Island. Most especially, he said, there is further place for outside investment in the Sakhalin-1 and Sakhalin-2 offshore oil projects.
Say Japanese officials, it is now time for improving Russian-Japanese relations in a "serious fashion." Leaving the Denver summit, both sides seemed ready to begin.