No. 7 — February 18, 2000

 

Weekly Review

JAPAN, RUSSIA MAKE A SHOW OF JUMP-STARTING PEACE PROCESS
--- by Barbara Wanner

Foreign Minister Yohei Kono and his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, agreed February 11 to proceed "actively and constructively" toward the conclusion of a bilateral peace treaty that would formally end World War II. Toward this goal, they also pledged to respect previous agreements between the two nations that had established substantive goals and had set a 2000 deadline for the conclusion of the accord. But despite the positive tenor of the first foreign ministerial meeting since President Boris Yeltsin made Vladimir Putin the acting head of government December 31, some insiders are skeptical that Mr. Ivanov's February 10-13 meetings in Tokyo really jump-started the long-stalled peace treaty process much, if at all.

For one thing, certain of the Russian Foreign minister's statements before the talks were not encouraging. In a February 8 reply to questions posed by Kyodo Wire Service, Mr. Ivanov wrote that it was important not "to create illusions [concerning] the possibilities of achieving decisions in a certain time frame. " The fact that the Russian official subsequently avoided commenting on his premeeting remarks and, following his discussions with Mr. Kono, dodged media probes about the attainability of the yearend deadline — there are "many different opinions about this," he said — created the impression that the timely conclusion of a Japan-Russia peace treaty simply is not a priority for Moscow at the moment.

The volatile nature of Russian politics probably was largely to blame for Mr. Ivanov's reserve. He sought to assure his Japanese hosts that Mr. Putin, who will stand for election March 26, is committed to the peace treaty process. However, the acting president and his lieutenants no doubt fear a nationalist backlash if there is any suggestion that Moscow might agree to surrender territory to Japan.

Although a 1956 accord normalized diplomatic and commercial interactions between Japan and Russia, a dispute concerning joint claims to four islands northeast of Hokkaido seized by the former Soviet Union in the closing days of World War II — Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islets — continues to be the main obstacle to the conclusion of a bilateral peace treaty. For the past 50-plus years, neither side has been willing to relinquish its claims to the so-called Northern Territories.

Seven years ago, Mr. Yeltsin and then-Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa realized some progress in moving the debate off square one. The 1993 Tokyo Declaration called on both sides to resolve the territorial row "based on the principles of law and justice." This language referred to a provision of the 1956 pact in which the former Soviet Union agreed to return Shikotan and the Habomai group to Tokyo with the conclusion of a peace treaty.

Four years later, Mr. Yeltsin and then-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto established another important milestone at an informal one-on-one meeting in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk by setting a 2000 deadline for conclusion of a peace treaty. Hoping to take advantage of the positive momentum, Mr. Hashimoto subsequently initiated a major departure from Tokyo's previous all-or-nothing strategy by proposing to Mr. Yeltsin in April 1998 that Russia recognize Japan's sovereignty over the four Northern Territories islands while continuing to administer them for an unspecified period of time. Mr. Yeltsin told reporters following this second "no-necktie" meeting in Kawana, a resort in Shizuoka prefecture, that he would "study the proposal," adding that he was "optimistic."

In the nearly two years since then, however, talks based on the Tokyo Declaration and the Krasnoyarsk and Kawana agreements have been at a virtual standstill. For most of this time, the repeated challenges to Mr. Yeltsin's leadership and, relatedly, his preoccupation with Russia's economic troubles were the cause of the deadlock. Illustrative of the severity of the former Russian leader's political problems, Mr. Ivanov's late February 1999 meeting with Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi (see JEI Report No. 9B, March 5, 1999) had ended on the same inconclusive note as his talks with Mr. Kono did.

Some observers think that the anticipated late March election of Mr. Putin as Russia's president will create a more stable political backdrop for the resumption of discussions, particularly of Mr. Hashimoto's April 1998 plan to draw a new border between Japan and Russia north of the disputed islands. In fact, one point on which Messrs. Kono and Ivanov did agree was the need to begin preparations for Mr. Putin to visit Japan. Mr. Kono reportedly proposed that such a meeting take place sometime before the July 21-23 summit of the leaders of the Group of Seven industrial nations plus Russia on Okinawa.

In an effort to create an environment more conducive to productive peace treaty talks, the Japanese side pledged some $120 million to assist Russia in dismantling nuclear submarines docked in the Russian Far East and another $20 million to help finance a scientific research center in Moscow. Mr. Kono reiterated Japan's commitment to support Russia's market-oriented reforms. Mr. Ivanov, who had stopped in North Korea before arriving in Japan, welcomed efforts by Tokyo, Washington and Seoul to engage Pyongyang. The Russian Foreign minister also described in positive terms the confidence-building nature of such bilateral military exchanges as Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev's upcoming trip to Japan.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of the Japan Economic Institute

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