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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Looking Beyond The Kuriles

Washington, 30 July 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The current rapprochement between Russia and Japan opens the way for Moscow to play an expanded diplomatic role in Asia. But at the same time, it appears likely to exacerbate tensions between Moscow and its Far Eastern regions.

The blossoming of these ties gives Moscow the opportunity to play a more independent role vis-a-vis China on a variety of questions, including relations between the two Koreas and the future status of the Pacific rim states.

But the more immediate consequence of this warming may in fact work against Moscow's interests. Russian leaders, from President Boris Yeltsin on down, have sought better ties with Tokyo in the hopes that Japanese firms would step up investments in Russia.

That is now likely to happen. But because most Japanese investment is likely to go into Russia's Siberia and Far East, this influx of foreign cash may make the already independent-minded leaders there ever less willing to follow Moscow's lead.

And consequently what is obviously a major foreign policy victory for Moscow could quickly be translated into a major domestic policy problem.

Since World War II, relations between Moscow and Tokyo have been complicated by a still-unresolved dispute over an archipelago of small islands seized from Japan by Soviet troops in 1945.

Japanese officials have always insisted that Moscow must return what Tokyo calls the Northern territories before Japan could begin to become more involved in the Russian economy.

But Moscow has insisted that it is unwilling to make any concessions on sovereignty over islands it calls the Kuriles.

Despite this impasse, there have been signs in recent years that each side would like somehow to look beyond this particular issue but to do so in a way that it would not lose face either at home or in the region as a whole.

Last Thursday, Japanes Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto appeared to have found a formula for doing just that. He said that Tokyo's relationship with Moscow should be based on three new priorities -- "mutual benefit," "building trust," and "long-term prospects."

Significantly, he did not mention the Northern Territories, thus implying that Japan was willing to proceed with expanded ties even before any progress was made on this politically sensitive issue.

On Friday, a Japanese foreign ministry made that point explicit, although he did try to take some of the sting out of this by suggesting that the two sides had made some progress toward a resolution of the territorial dispute.

But Japan's real calculations on this point were probably better reflected in a comment made last week by Hashimoto. The Japanese premier noted that Tokyo would be "isolated" if did not have "fully normalized" relations with Russia, as other powers now have.

On Monday, Yeltsin's press secretary said that the Russian president was delighted by this breakthrough and looked forward to talks with the Japanese leader later this year somewhere in the Russian Far East.

Yeltsin's happiness about the Japanese decision is entirely understandable. It suggests that Tokyo will drop much of its scepticism about Russian participation in G-7 activities, and it means that Japanese firms will invest more in Russia itself.

Both on the face of it are good news for Russia. Japanese acceptance will only enhance Yeltsin's own ability to deal with other world leaders and to advance Russian interests in the Pacific. And Japanese investments will help Russia's still troubled economy.

But the second of these contributions does entail some risks for Moscow. Officials in the Russian Far East have been increasingly unwilling to follow Moscow's lead on a variety of issues. Increased Japanese investment there will exacerbate this situation.

And thus Moscow may come to regret that Tokyo has decided to look beyond the Kuriles in its dealings with Russia.