No. 32 — August 18, 2000


Weekly Review

--- by Barbara Wanner

Notwithstanding the optimistic spin that officials in Tokyo and Moscow have tried to put on recent high-level bilateral discussions, it appears increasingly unlikely that Japan and Russia will achieve their goal of concluding a formal treaty to end World War II between them by December 31. At their September 3-5 meetings in Tokyo, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori no doubt will attempt to demonstrate progress toward removing the longtime roadblock to a peace pact — the territorial dispute over four islands northeast of Hokkaido. Insiders suggest, however, that the two sides may be less willing to soften their respective positions than even three months ago.

For many of the past 50-plus years, the Japanese government has maintained that a peace treaty with Russia cannot be concluded without first resolving the dispute over joint claims to what Tokyo calls the Northern Territories and Moscow terms the Kuril islands — Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islets. Tokyo has intimated that when that hurdle is cleared, it will be more forthcoming with the financial assistance that the former Soviet Union keenly wants and needs to complete its transition to a market-driven economy. Conversely, Russian officials have been steadfast in their argument that a peace treaty and the development of closer economic relations would create an atmosphere that is more conducive to addressing the territorial dispute.

Former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto attempted to break the logjam in an April 1998 meeting with then-President Boris Yeltsin by proposing that Russia recognize Japan's sovereignty over the disputed islands while continuing to administer them for an unspecified period. Although Mr. Yeltsin agreed to study the idea and hinted that he was favorably disposed to it, the bilateral dialogue on this issue remained stuck in neutral. Some experts suggested that, given the pressures caused by Russia's economic woes and rising nationalist sentiments, Mr. Yeltsin simply was too weak politically to act on Mr. Hashimoto's plan.

Mr. Putin, who was tapped by Mr. Yeltsin to serve as acting head of government in December 1999 and then won the presidential election this past March, seems to have a firmer grip on the reins of power. Possibly as a result of his clout, though, Mr. Putin has taken an even harder line than his predecessor on the territorial dispute. Mr. Mori discovered firsthand Mr. Putin's toughness as a negotiator during a late April get-acquainted meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia. Their talks produced considerable rhetoric but no breakthrough (see JEI Report No. 18B, May 5, 2000).

In the months that followed, Tokyo, too, became less accommodating. Deputy Foreign Minister Ryozo Kato reportedly told Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov during a mid-June meeting in Moscow that Japan would step up economic cooperation only if Russia accepted Mr. Hashimoto's innovative formula for resolving the territorial flap. Otherwise, Russia "would lose the benefits" of this assistance. When asked to comment on the aid-islands linkage, an unnamed Russian official was quoted as saying: "It will not be constructive to tie [resolution of] the territory issue with economic assistance."

Mr. Putin echoed these sentiments during a July 23 get-together with Mr. Mori in Nago on Okinawa after the summit of the leaders of the Group of Seven major industrial nations plus Russia (see JEI Report No. 29B, July 28, 2000). Asserting that his government had "a number of problems" with Mr. Hashimoto's proposal, the Russian leader called for a postponement in the yearend deadline for concluding a peace treaty. He urged the two sides to be patient in seeking ways to resolve the matter "so that both countries can reap proper benefits."

Mr. Mori, known more for his back-room political skills than for his statesmanship, nevertheless sought to signal that his government was sticking firmly to its position, reportedly saying that " [i]ssues cannot be evaded, regardless of the difficulties." Messrs. Mori and Putin seemed to be able to agree on only one aspect of the territorial negotiations — that the issue of joint claims to the disputed islands should be "tackled without reservation and [in a] frank manner."

Meeting on the sidelines of the July 27 session of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum in Bangkok, Foreign Minister Yohei Kono and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov tried to establish a positive mood for the early September meetings in Tokyo of their heads of government, but they failed to make any substantive progress. "Japan and Russia should deepen exchanges in all fields and sincerely cooperate with each other, and the peace treaty is at the pivot of such cooperative relations," Mr. Kono told his Russian counterpart. Mr. Ivanov, in turn, conveyed Mr. Putin's "firm conviction" that Japan is one of Russia's most important partners and that Moscow hopes to achieve greater transparency in its relations with Tokyo. The two diplomats did agree to promote bilateral exchanges in various fields and, in general, to work toward building mutual trust between Japan and Russia.

All in all, though, the upcoming meetings between Mr. Mori and Mr. Putin probably will be a souffle of sorts — light and fluffy with little substance. That would not necessarily be bad, say some experts. Simply having the two nations' leaders sit down together on a fairly regular basis helps to diffuse tensions and keep alive the prospect of a resolution of the territorial matter. And given Mr. Mori's domestic political weakness and uncertain tenure, he may be interested in little more than going through the motions. In time, however, Tokyo and Moscow again will crave something more substantial than dessert.

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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