No. 18 — May 5, 2000


Weekly Review

--- by Barbara Wanner

Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori's April 28-30 visit to St. Petersburg, Russia, the first stop on a nine-day tour to meet leaders of the Group of Seven industrial nations plus Russia, probably reinforced rather than altered his image as a neophyte in diplomatic circles. Few experts had anticipated that Mr. Mori's meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin would result in a breakthrough on the long-running territorial dispute over four islands northeast of Hokkaido, which, for more than 50 years, has blocked conclusion of a formal treaty ending World War II between Japan and Russia. However, the fact that the two leaders were unable to agree on a date for Mr. Putin's official visit to Japan — a critical milestone, Japanese officials contend, if the two nations are to realize their goal of signing a treaty by the end of the year — did not inspire confidence in certain Tokyo quarters that Mr. Mori could hold his own with the forceful new Russian president or that Tokyo and Moscow could meet their December 2000 target.

While the two men attended a hockey game after their April 29 talks, Japanese diplomats finally persuaded their Russian counterparts of the importance of Mr. Putin visiting Japan in late August. Mr. Mori initially had proposed a July 24 or a July 25 meeting in Tokyo following the July 21-23 summit on Okinawa of the G-8 leaders. Mr. Putin demurred, stating his preference for a Tokyo summit later in the year. At one point, Russian officials reportedly floated the idea of a November visit, but the Japanese side rejected that proposal on the grounds that it would be virtually impossible for the two nations to achieve in only one month's time the complicated balance that will be required to conclude a bilateral peace pact. The selection of a tentative date in late August represented an effort by both sides to split the difference, Mr. Mori later acknowledged.

Having stumbled on the scheduling matter, however, it was hard for the prime minister to make the case that the long-troubled relationship between Japan and Russia was improving. Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki tried to put a positive spin on Mr. Mori's three-day trip, portraying the premier's conversations with Mr. Putin as a "good start" for the two countries' efforts to conclude a peace treaty. "They built personal trust," Mr. Aoki told a May 1 press conference in Tokyo, describing Mr. Putin's agreement to visit Tokyo sooner rather than later as "extremely positive."

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also tried to highlight the positive aspects of the dialogue, noting that Messrs. Mori and Putin agreed to "respect past agreements regarding the peace treaty," including the goal established in November 1997 by then-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and then-President Boris Yeltsin to resolve the territorial dispute and conclude a formal peace agreement by the end of 2000. The row concerning joint claims to what Japan calls the Northern Territories and Russia terms the Kuril Islands — Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islets — continues to be the main stumbling block. Japan has withheld all but token economic assistance for its struggling neighbor pending the finalization of a peace pact.

Basically, the disagreement comes down to strategy. For many of the past 50-odd years, Tokyo has maintained that a peace treaty cannot be concluded without first resolving the territorial dispute. With that hurdle cleared, the money valve would be opened, Japanese officials have repeatedly intimated. Conversely, Russia has argued that a peace treaty and the development of closer economic relations would create an atmosphere more conducive to addressing the territorial flap.

In an effort to break this impasse, Mr. Hashimoto suggested to Mr. Yeltsin at an April 1998 meeting that Russia recognize Japan's sovereignty over the disputed islands while continuing to administer them for an unspecified period of time. Although the former Russian leader agreed to study the proposal and expressed optimism about what the analysis might yield, for all intents and purposes, the bilateral dialogue screeched to a halt.

Admittedly, Mr. Yeltsin had more than enough problems to deal with back home. The former Soviet Union's economic woes and rising nationalist sentiments had sparked repeated challenges to his leadership. Some experts argued that the Russian president simply was too weak politically to act on Mr. Hashimoto's innovative proposal for a territorial compromise. Thus, when Mr. Yeltsin tapped Mr. Putin to serve as acting head of government in late December and the former intelligence officer won election to his nation's highest post March 26, some observers in Tokyo expressed hope that with a more powerful number one in Russia, treaty negotiations might resume again. However, Foreign Minister Yohei Kono's inability to make headway during a mid-February meeting with his counterpart, Igor Ivanov (see JEI Report No. 7B, February 18, 2000), suggested that even a change in leadership in Moscow might not make any difference.

If anything, Mr. Putin has taken a harder line on the territorial dispute than his predecessor. Mr. Mori, in fact, described the Russian president as a "tough negotiator [who] is warm-hearted, but at the same time [has] a mind that is razor sharp." Some pundits have predicted that Mr. Mori will not remain in office for long. The odds are, however, that even a stronger and savvier prime minister would face no less difficulty in reaching an accord with Mr. Putin by the yearend 2000 deadline.

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

Issue Index aaaa 2000 Archive Index aaaa Subscriber Area aaaa Home