A LONG-STANDING territorial dispute with Japan has emerged as a key issue in Russian domestic politics.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin is scheduled to travel to Japan in mid-September on his first visit as the leader of Russia. Japanese officials have openly expressed the hope that Mr. Yeltsin will be prepared to make concessions to Tokyo's demand for the return of four islands in the Kurile chain occupied by the Soviet Union at the close of World War II.
But Yeltsin is under pressure from an array of political forces who oppose ceding any Soviet-held territory to Japan. The most virulent opposition comes from hard-line Communists and extreme Russian nationalists who call the issue a test case of Russia's great-power status. Closed-door hearings
"Right-wingers have launched an attack, using this problem as their trump card," parliament Deputy Chairman Sergei Filatov told reporters before entering closed-door hearings on the issue held on July 28.
The Yeltsin government is also under attack from moderates who warn that yielding to the Japanese could threaten Yeltsin's presidency and feed the conservative opposition. In fact Social Democratic Party leader Oleg Rumyantsev, considered a liberal backer of the government, has been leading the charge against what he and other deputies claim is the intention of a weak-kneed Foreign Ministry to yield the islands in exchange for Japanese economic aid. He organized the hearings last week, calling on Yeltsin
to postpone his visit or at least consult with legislators beforehand.
"A promise to return the Kurile Islands will lead to territorial claims to Russia on the part of China, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, Finland, and other states," said Iona Andronov of the parliament's foreign affairs committee.
Similar views were expressed in the closed session by the Russian Defense Ministry, the General Staff, and by the Navy, according to participants and published reports. The military repeated arguments that the islands are important to Russian security, particularly to the protection of the Sea of Okhotsk, a key staging ground for nuclear submarines. They called for suspension of Russian pledges to remove unilaterally the military presence on the islands over the next two years while negotiations are conc luded.
In a clear signal of the domestic political character of this visit, Yeltsin is dispatching Information Minister Mikhail Poltoranin, one of his closest political allies, to Japan to prepare for the trip.
The islands - Shikotan, Kunashiri, Etorofu, and the uninhabited Habomai islands - lie at the end of the Kurile chain off the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. The Japanese cite a series of treaties, going back to 1855, in which Imperial Russia recognized that these were Japanese territory.
Because of the dispute, Japan and the Soviet Union never signed a peace treaty officially ending World War II. In 1956 the Soviet Union and Japan signed a declaration restoring diplomatic relations in which the Soviets agreed to return Shikotan and the Habomai group following the conclusion of a peace treaty. The Japanese understood that the status of the other two islands would be settled at that time.
But that agreement was repudiated by Moscow in 1960 in response to the signing of the United States-Japan security pact. Attempts to resolve the issue began again in earnest in the mid-1980s, but Japanese hopes that former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would make a dramatic breakthrough were not realized.
The Japanese have held off on providing large-scale economic aid until the issue is settled, a linkage that both Mr. Gorbachev and now Yeltsin have strongly opposed. Indeed, Yeltsin tore into Japan following his meeting with the Group of Seven industrial leaders last month in Munich for being "the only country which has not contributed a penny, a half a dollar, or even half a yen to Russia."
Still, Yeltsin seems ready to go ahead with the trip, even though it does not offer hope of a quick solution to the territorial problem.
"It is clear that for the government and for the president himself, it will be possible to go ahead, to be very cautious but to go ahead slowly," says national security analyst Sergei Blagovolin, who attended the closed hearings and testified in support of a territorial agreement. "As a first step, we will return to the 1956 declaration. If not, there is no reason for the president to go to Japan." Deflecting conservatives
Mr. Blagovolin predicts parliament and the public will back such a stance. But he warns that the government would be vulnerable to conservatives unless the territorial issue is part of a package of agreements covering other problems such as human rights and military security. This should include trilateral talks with Japan and the US over naval forces, especially American anti-submarine activity in the Sea of Ohkotsk.
"The Japanese will not be happy with this formula," Blagovolin cautions. But by now, he hopes, "they are able to understand that for us this is a domestic problem, not a foreign one, and they will have to take this into account."