THE last-minute cancellation of President Boris Yeltsin's trip to Japan is the latest evidence of the strengthening of conservative nationalist forces in Russia.
The diplomatic jolt sends Russo-Japanese relations into a deep freeze, auguring the growth of new tensions and instability in the Far East, experts here worry.
"To cancel a visit just three days before is a disaster," comments Konstantin Sarkisov, a leading Japanese specialist and a member of a special government commission that prepared for the visit. "It will cause grave damage."
The decision was clearly prompted by the failure of Japan and Russia to reach an understanding before the visit on how to handle the territorial dispute over islands in the Southern Kurile chain occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. Longstanding Japanese demands for the islands' return have been an obstacle to improvement of relations for decades, blocking even the signing of a peace treaty to formally end the war.
Japanese officials had expressed hope that with the end of the Soviet Union and Communist rule, this relic of the cold war finally could be put to rest. But in recent months the islands have become a hot political issue here, seized upon in particular by antigovernment, former-Communist, and nationalist parties and groups as a test of Russian national pride. Even within the Yeltsin administration, opinions have been strongly divided between liberals advocating a more flexible attitude and more-conservati ve figures opposing any immediate concession to the Japanese.
The liberals were pushing for Yeltsin to reactivate an abandoned 1956 Soviet-Japanese agreement that calls for immediate return of Shikotan and the Habomai islets, with the status of the two other disputed islands to be settled later. The early August visit of liberal Information Minister Mikhail Poltoranin to Japan seemed to indicate Russian readiness to make that move.
According to Mr. Sarkisov, an advocate of the liberal policy, the Yeltsin view shifted two weeks ago. The late August visit of Yeltsin's chief of staff, Yuri Petrov, a leading conservative, to Japan for final trip preparations signaled the shift.
"While in Tokyo, I was constantly hearing there is a need to settle the problem now, during the visit of your president," Mr. Petrov said in an interview with the daily Kuranty published yesterday. "We just cannot leave the islands - we were the victors in the war."
Increasingly Yeltsin also expressed irritation with what is seen as unyielding Japanese pressure on this issue, including linking large-scale economic aid to the territorial issue. Yeltsin took a tough stance in a meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe at the beginning of the month. "Japan's desire to present its position as a flexible stand is an imitation of flexibility," Yeltsin's press secretary told reporters after the meeting.
As late as Saturday, however, Yeltsin was still prepared to go to Tokyo, albeit with reservations about the outcome. "My official visit to Japan will begin on Sept. 13 notwithstanding the fact that in Japan there are certain forces that are hyping the `northern territories' [as the Japanese call the disputed islands] too much," he told a Japanese audience on television.
The cancellation came after a reportedly stormy discussion at a Wednesday meeting of the Security Council, a presidential decisionmaking body which many have called a conservative stronghold. "This decision is a setback for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs because they wanted to have a breakthrough in relations with Japan," says Sarkisov. "It is a victory of hard-liners."
Others, even advocates of a more flexible stance, say cancellation was a better option than a trip that was guaranteed to fail. "If the visit were without any political results, it would be much worse," says security expert Sergei Blagovolin.
Some signs indicate, however, that the abrupt cancellation was prompted by more than domestic political concerns. Hints have been dropped that Yeltsin and some of his advisers have adopted a longer-term Asian policy in which Japan will take a back seat to relations with South Korea, India, China, and even Taiwan. The Russians are pursuing trade and arms sales with China and India, while Korea and Taiwan are viewed as alternative sources of the investment and technology they seek from Japan. This week Rus sia signed an agreement establishing permanent trade offices with Taiwan, one step short of recognition. A visit to South Korea that was to take place along with the Japan trip has been pointedly rescheduled, tacked on to a trip to China in December.
Yeltsin aide Gennady Burbulis, who headed the commission perparing the Japan visit, outlined this strategy in an interview with the Itar-Tass news agency published Wednesday before the trip was canceled. Japan should "not exaggerate its role and importance to the detriment of those of other states in the Asia-Pacific region," he said. He warned that the visit to Tokyo could "have no intonations of subordination or dependence."
Such statements indicate the decision has deeper roots in anti-Japanese feelings among the current Russian leadership. "It may become a real source of instability," worries Japan specialist Sarkisov. "The Asian situation as a whole will deteriorate."