Putin hardens stand on disputed islands

Vladimir Radyuhin

RESURGENT RUSSIA has hardened its position on a long-standing territorial dispute with Japan refusing to discuss ceding control even of some of the disputed islands as promised by the erstwhile Soviet Union.

On a visit to Tokyo on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said solution of the island problem "is unlikely to be easy," adding that the two sides "explained the logic of their positions to each other."

The Russian leader and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi signed 18 agreements on wide-ranging cooperation between the two countries but did not issue any statement concerning a territorial dispute.

Speaking after their talks, Mr. Koizumi said "a wide gap" remained between the two countries on the issue.

The territorial dispute over four Southern Kuril Islands has soured Russia-Japan relations for the past 60 years. Russia took possession of the islands at the end of the Second World War, which Japan fought on the side of Nazi Germany. In 1956 Moscow and Tokyo signed a political declaration in which the Soviet Union agreed to return two smaller islands to Japan once the two countries conclude a post-Second World War peace treaty.

The treaty has never been signed, but in 1993 President Boris Yeltsin, who desperately wanted Japanese money to mitigate the catastrophic results of his economic reforms, signed another declaration with Japan in which Russia recognised the existence of a territorial dispute over the four Kuril Islands.

However, as Russia rebounded after Yeltsin rule, President Putin made it clear Moscow would not make any territorial concessions to Tokyo.

"The Kuril Islands are under the sovereignty of the Russian Federation, this is sealed in international law, it is the result of World War Two, and we are not going to discuss the matter," Mr. Putin said during a televised call-in question-and-answer session earlier this year.

Taken aback by Russia's new intractability Japan sought to revive an old Russian proposal to engage in "joint economic activity" on the four islands. However, Russia has rebuffed the offer too.

Japan's Foreign Minister Taro Aso admitted the two sides did not discuss the issue. "One step forward may be to take a new approach with the suggestion of a project, in which we can see tangible results in the improvement of the islanders' lives," Mr. Aso said. "If such a project takes place, mutual trust could grow between the two countries as something said becomes a reality. But this isn't something that has been officially suggested [to Russia]."

Plan to develop local economy

After neglecting the Kuril Islands for many years Russia has assigned priority to strengthening its sovereignty over the islands and has approved multi-million allocations in next year's budget for developing local economy.

Mr. Putin is visiting Japan for the first time since 2000, even though he has toured the region every year. Moscow patiently waited for Tokyo to accept the Kremlin position that the two countries must first build strong trade and economic ties and on that basis try and resolve the territorial dispute.

Because of the territorial dispute Japan has been reluctant to invest in Russia, accounting for less than 1 per cent of the nation's total foreign investment so far. However, with Russia emerging as a key source of energy contested by Asia's biggest energy consumers, Tokyo was finally forced to go along with the Russian formula for building bilateral ties.

During Mr. Putin's current visit the two sides have put the emphasis on economic relations, agreeing on a speedy construction of the first leg of a pipeline to bring Siberian oil to Japan. Japan has also agreed to invest in tapping new gas, oil and coal resources in Russia and in helping Russia to develop infrastructure projects in Siberia and the Far East.

At the same time, Moscow has sought to dispel any hopes in Tokyo for early shifts on the territorial dispute. Russia's Ambassador to Tokyo, Alexander Losyukov, was on record as stating that one should not expect any progress on the issue in the next 10 years.