Yeltsin Snub Stirs Concern in Tokyo

Critics say Japan's stand on Kuriles and aid ignored Yeltsin's vulnerability

IF all had gone according to plan, Russian President Boris Yeltsin would have been in Tokyo today to accept minor economic aid, offer a solution to a territorial dispute, and watch sumo wrestling from the emperor's box.

Instead, Japan and Russia are hurling verbal charges over which side really caused the abrupt cancellation of Mr. Yeltsin's visit.

Stunned at being jilted by the 11th-hour cancellation, Japan blamed Yeltsin's political opponents in Moscow for opposing his possible move to promise return of four islands in the Kurile chain ruled by Moscow since World War II.

Yeltsin himself accused Japan of applying "pressure" by withholding large-scale aid for Russia until Moscow recognizes Japanese sovereignty over the islands.

Up to now, Japan has handed over only about $80 million in aid to Moscow and has tried to directly influence Russian public opinion on the islands issue. "There was no point in making a visit to Japan if it was going to be a fool's errand," Yeltsin was quoted as saying by ITAR-Tass news agency.

But beyond the mutual finger-pointing, the no-show by Yeltsin at his first summit with Japan now has both nations trying to figure out whether the incident will tip the balance in their contest of patience over which side will compromise first on the territorial dispute.

"Yeltsin cannot wait long for Japanese aid, but Japan will also need to reevaluate its position," says Russian expert Hiroshi Kato of Keio University in Tokyo.

The incident has ignited unusual criticism within Japan over the government's intransigent demand, as well as its apparent insensitivity to Russia's economic woes and a misreading of Yeltsin's political vulnerability.

Japan's Foreign Ministry had high hopes of a concession by Yeltsin due to positive signals from some of his liberal advisers, his agreement to settle the issue based on "law and justice," and the precedent of the former Soviet Union giving up control over Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.

"The Foreign Ministry, in general, is always naively overconfident," says Mr. Kato. "They only expect optimistic results."

The government has responded to the internal criticism by appearing to stiffen its stance. "The ball is now in the Russian court, absolutely," says Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Masamichi Hanabusa. Yeltsin, meanwhile, referred to Japan's demands as being "too categoric."

Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe threatened to cancel an international conference that Japan is hosting next month on aid to Russia and 11 other former Soviet republics. "If we are to go by what is being said now in Russia, there may be no point in holding the conference here," Mr. Watanabe told Kyodo News Service.

But Watanabe also hinted at a potential softening of Japan's stance. Rather than sticking to a demand for immediate sovereignty over all the islands, he said a "starting point" for talks could be a 1956 joint declaration between Japan and the Soviet Union that calls for two islands to be returned after the signing of a peace treaty, with further talks on the two other islands.

Watanabe said that such talks should only be a matter of a few years, but not as long as 10 years.

Yeltsin's visit had been designed to build a new post-cold-war relationship, but the two nations discovered that one issue of World War II still dogs them.

While the islands hold little economic value for Japan, officials in Tokyo see their claim as a symbol of their protest against "unjust" politics by major powers. They seek a reversal of the occupation of the islands by Stalin's Red Army at the end of World War II that was condoned by the United States in a secret agreement at Yalta.

More than a half century later, with Britain due to exit Hong Kong in 1997 and Portugal to leave Macao in 1999, Japan may be the only Asian nation to enter the 21st century with a part of its territory occupied by a Western power. This latest incident between Moscow and Tokyo could bring little sympathy from Japan's Western partners in the group of industrialized nations known as G-7.

"Japan faces a difficult choice as to how to reconcile its stand of `no serious aid without a territorial settlement' with the G-7's concerted efforts to support Yeltsin's path of reform and democracy," stated a Mainichi newspaper editorial.

Japan has gained little public support for its claim at the last two G-7 summits, and even some criticism from a few pro-Russia European countries. With Tokyo due to host the G-7 summit next summer, it could find itself more isolated on the issue.

In addition, Japan worries that Yeltsin may look to Taiwan, South Korea, or other nations in Asia for economic help, despite Japan being the nation with the largest trade surplus in the world and thus most capable of dispensing aid. Yeltsin is already rescheduling a visit to South Korea, which was also canceled along with the Tokyo trip, while he is not yet doing so with Japan.

And Russian administrators in the Far East were reported to have granted a 50-year lease on one of the islands to a Hong Kong firm to build a tourist and gambling complex. The lease, said Japanese government spokesman Koichi Kato, "is nothing but [an attempt] to falsify reality."

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