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Russia: Letter From Japan Does Little To Advance Kuriles Dispute

A World War II-era territorial dispute between Japan and Russia over the fate of four Pacific islands is back in the news since a group of Japanese parliamentarians arrived in Moscow yesterday to deliver a letter on the subject to Russian President Vladimir Putin. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini looks at the decades-old dispute.

Moscow, 15 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A lingering dispute between Japan and Russia over four Pacific islands was back in focus yesterday, when Japanese lawmakers arrived in Russia bearing a letter on the territorial quarrel from new Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

The islands -- which Russians call the Kuriles and Japanese call the Northern Territories -- are located some 1,000 km north of Tokyo and 800 km east of Vladivostok. Seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II, the islands have driven a wedge between Japan and Russia, which have never signed a peace treaty officially ending wartime hostilities.

Although the islands hold little economic or geopolitical value, they have emotional and patriotic significance in both countries.

The letter-bearing mission appears to have met with little success in Russia. After a meeting with the Japanese parliamentarians, Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov yesterday issued a strong statement indicating that an immediate resolution of the dispute was not in the offing:

"I absolutely don't think we should hand over anything to anybody. I think we should always look at these [matters] in the context of the results of World War II. If we set a precedent, we understand perfectly well how many countries will express their desire to revise the results of World War II and we would enter into a serious political spiral. I think it is not for our generations to discuss these matters."

While the full contents of Koizumi's letter have not been made public, they are likely to reflect remarks made by the Japanese prime minister before his own parliament yesterday.

News reports (Reuters) quoted Koizumi as saying: "We will not negotiate a peace treaty even if Russia returns two islands first, but the sovereignty of the other two remains ambiguous."

The Japanese prime minister also said: "As long as the issue of the sovereignty of the four islands is not resolved, we will not sign a peace treaty, and there [will be] no change in Japan's policy toward Russia."

Koizumi's emphasis on all four islands may indicate that the new prime minister intends to take a tougher stance on the islands dispute than his predecessor Yoshiro Mori, who was willing to see two of the four islands returned first through the signing of an interim peace treaty.

Mori re-entered the debate on 13 May during a televised interview in which he said Moscow had earlier agreed to break the negotiation process into two parts.

The Russian Foreign Ministry yesterday dismissed Mori's remarks, saying no agreement had ever been reached on dividing the negotiations.

Russian Duma deputy Konstantin Kosachev, who is due to meet with the Japanese parliamentarians today, said the dispute is likely to remain "stuck in the disagreement that has existed for decades."

Kosachev says that Russia is still "theoretically" bound by the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, which he says stipulates that a peace treaty can be signed once Russia hands back just two of the islands. The current dispute, Kosachev says, arises from Japan's refusal to sign a treaty until all of the islands are handed over:

"The necessary condition for handing over two islands to Japan is the signing of a peace agreement that would completely end the territorial issue. In other words, [an agreement] that would preclude any further discussion of the fate of the two remaining islands, which would stay a part of Russia forever."

Kosachev argues that any delay in the negotiation process is largely due to the Japanese side:

"As far as I understand it, it's exactly this position [of transferring only two islands to Japan] that since 1956 has failed to satisfy the Japanese side, which insists on all four islands being handed over. Such a maximalist position, in turn, has not been satisfactory to either Soviet or Russian politicians and diplomats. And that's why we have always said that as long as there's no peace treaty, there's no obligation on our part [to hand over] the two islands. And so we come back around to the starting point -- not a single island is being given back, and negotiations over the peace treaty continue."

Putin and Koizumi are not scheduled to meet before July, when they will both attend at the annual gathering of the Group of Seven industrialized nations plus Russia in Genoa, Italy.