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Lavrov Talks Tough At Meeting With Japan On Disputed Islands

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (right) and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono enter a hall for their talks in Moscow on January 14.

Moscow has warned Tokyo not to expect progress toward an agreement over the disputed Kurile Islands unless Japan first recognizes Russian sovereignty over the Pacific island chain claimed by both countries since World War II.

Meeting with his Japanese counterpart in Moscow on January 14, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the countries still had "substantial disagreements" despite some progress in bringing their positions closer.

The Soviet Union seized the four islands north of Hokkaido at the end of the war, and the dispute has prevented the countries form signing a peace treaty to formally end the hostilities. Japan calls the islands the Northern Territories.

Lavrov's talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Tara Kono came ahead of a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Foreign Minister Shinzo Abe, which the Kremlin said will be held on January 22 in Moscow.

Putin and Abe agreed in November to accelerate negotiations based on a 1956 Soviet proposal to return the two less populated islands, Shikotan and a group of islets called Habomai.

But Lavrov set a tough tone in remarks both before and after the meeting with Kono, criticizing recent statements by Japanese officials and saying that Tokyo must not try to force an agreement.

"Today we confirmed our readiness to work on the basis of the 1956 declaration, which means above all the immutability -- as the very first step -- of recognition by our Japanese neighbors of the outcome of the Second World War," Lavrov said.

That includes "the sovereignty of the Russian Federation over all the islands of the Southern Kuriles," Lavrov said. "This is our fundamental position, and without a step in this direction it is very hard to count on any movement forward on other issues."

"Russia's sovereignty over the islands is not subject to discussion. They are part of the territory of the Russian Federation," Lavrov told reporters. He said the UN Charter supports Moscow's ownership of the islands.

Recognition of the outcome of the war, and of Russian sovereignty over the islands, could potentially rule out any further dispute or claims by Tokyo on the two larger and more populated islands, Iturup and Kunashir.

Abe, who has been prime minister since 2012 and also held the post earlier, has met repeatedly with Putin and voiced hope of ending the dispute while gaining control over at least some of the four islands.

Moscow has often suggested that increased Japanese investment and trade would help create favorable conditions for a deal, but Lavrov said business cooperation on the islands was being implemented "on a very modest, unimpressive scale."

Speaking at the start of the talks, Kono seemed to try to turn the tables on Russia on that score, saying that the two countries need to solve the territorial problem to set the stage for expanding economic and other ties.

Following upbeat statements by Japanese officials in recent weeks, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the Japanese ambassador on January 9 to warn Tokyo not to "artificially incite the atmosphere regarding the peace treaty problem and [not to] try to enforce its own scenario of settling the issue."

Lavrov was similarly stern as he sat down for the talks with Kono, saying that "once again, I would like to ask our Japanese colleagues to strictly follow agreements by our leaders, both regarding the format of talks and, naturally, the substance of work on a peace treaty."

After the talks, Lavrov dismissed as "unacceptable" what he said was a recent statement by Abe that "Russian citizens will be able to remain on the islands after [they] come under Japanese sovereignty."

Lavrov also said that a statement by an aide to Abe suggesting that resolving the dispute would help Japan and the United States deter China was "outrageous," and claimed it raised questions about the independence of Japanese foreign policy.

"We wondered whether Japan could be independent given such reliance on the U.S., and we were told that Japan would act proceeding from its national interests," Lavrov said. "We would like to hope it will indeed be so."

He also said that Russia is concerned about the U.S. military presence in the region, including the deployment of U.S. missile-defense components which he said create security risks for Russia and China.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, RIA Novosti, TASS, and Interfax
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