Kurilsk, Russia, 25 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Two weeks ago, Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed what was called the "Moscow Declaration," expressing a determination to conclude a peace treaty formally ending World War Two by the end of the year 2000.
Shortly after Yeltsin and Obuchi met in the Russian capital, an RFE/RL correspondent visited the four sparsely populated islands in the northwestern Pacific that remain at the heart of the dispute blocking a treaty more than 50 years after the war's end.
Known as the southern Kurils in Russia and as the Northern Territories in Japan, the four islands were claimed by Tokyo under an 1875 treaty. Soviet forces occupied them at the end of World War Two and Moscow's possession was recognized by world powers in the Yalta agreements. The inhabitants were sent to Japan and replaced by Russians.
Today some 20,000 people, virtually all of them ethnic Russians, live on the four islands, which have a remote, desolate beauty. Volcanic peaks rise from the sea and twisted cedars stand on the hillsides.
But the villages are desperately poor, and the hardship of everyday life on the islands is only being made worse by Russia's present economic crisis. As a result of the past link and the present poverty, Japan provides medical assistance and food aid.
On the largest island, Iturup, the 56-kilometer road from the airport to the main settlement of Kurilsk is in poor condition. Trucks carrying passengers veer down onto sandy beaches, passing the hulks of wrecked ships. In Kurilsk itself, the streets are mud and electricity was out for three days everywhere in town, except at the mayor's office. The buildings are sided with bare wood and tar-paper.
When she moved to Iturup 30 years ago, Anna Yerokhina began working as a technologist at a collective dairy farm. She oversaw the production of milk and cottage cheese.
But the collective farm collapsed after the breakup of the Soviet Union and since 1994 Yerokhina, 53, has been surviving on a 700-ruble monthly pension. She runs a small shop selling coats, underwear, slippers and Chinese porcelain. She supports a daughter who is attending university and a son who cannot find work.
Yerokhina said she is not worried about Japanese demands that a peace treaty formally ending World War Two include a return of the Kuril Islands to Japan.
She said that her family would "definitely stay if (the Japanese government) provided jobs." She asked, "What has our government done for us?", adding that her son "graduated from Vladivostok University as a construction engineer, and he hasn't been able to find work in three years."
Yet for every resident who thinks conditions might improve under a Japanese government, others will argue that the islands -- the southern tip of a volcanic chain that extends from the Kamchatka peninsula -- are as Russian as the Volga River.
Some say their roots run deep. Anatoly Zheleznyakov, 53, a doctor, gave a simple reason: "Patriotism. It is our land."
Such sentiments have rallied many Russians behind the Kuril islands' issue. Japan's quest for their return has drawn angry reactions from public figures including Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and Yevgeny Nazdratenko, governor of the Far Eastern Primorye region.
Across Russia, there is a deep sense of pride about the country's vast territory and any talk of giving up land stirs anxieties. On the Kurils themselves, patriotism can take another form -- a nationalism that spurns any outside authority.
According to Svetlana Guseva, 48, who owns a store with her husband Alexander, residents do not want Japanese or Russian authority. She said it would be "better to give the Kurils to the Kuril residents, and separate from the Russian federation."
But Guseva said things are not so bad on Iturup. Unlike nearby Shikotan, where desperate residents are collecting signatures to lease the island to the Japanese for 99 years, on Iturup there are no homeless people and no children begging. The shops in Kurilsk have enough food, she said, though others say it is impossible to find fruit.
The island's economy is mainly based on fishing, and Kurilsk's Mayor Sergei Podolyan says there are successes such as Gidrostroi, a fishing firm that also runs a construction business and maintains the rutted roads. Podolyan urges Japanese businessmen he meets to press their government into ending restrictions on trading with the islands. Podolyan told our correspondent that what people want on the islands is cooperation between Russia and Japan. He said residents above all want outside investment.
(Working is a Vladivostok-based contributor to RFE/RL. Nonna Chernyakova also contributed to this report.)