Russia's renewed focus on Kuril Islands draws Japanese ire

Japan's foreign minister is in Moscow to discuss the Kuril Islands. Russia and Japan never signed a peace agreement after World War II because of a dispute over the territory.

Koji Sasahara/AP
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan delivers a speech Monday at a rally marking the Northern Territory Day in Tokyo. Japan reiterated its demand to Russia the return of the four-island chain, known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Kuril islands in Russia. The banner reads: "Return the Northern Territories."

Russia and Japan appear headed into a deep diplomatic chill after a meeting meant to resolve their long-running dispute over the Kuril Islands, occupied by the USSR in 1945, ended in an exchange of acrimonious rhetoric Friday.

The four tiny islands off the northern tip of Japan are the last loose end left over from World War II, and are the main reason Russia and Japan have never signed a peace treaty formally ending the state of war between them. Japan has never accepted the Soviet occupation of the islands, which it calls its "Northern Territories," while Russia insists the territorial transfer was approved under wartime accords between the Western allies and the USSR.

The issue had long been relegated to the diplomatic back-burner, but Russian President Dmitry Medvedev revived it last October by becoming the first Soviet or Russian leader ever to visit the remote islands and pledging to make major investments in the local economy.

Amid a storm of outrage in Japan, Russia agreed to hold a meeting of foreign ministers to discuss ways of defusing the controversy and moving toward long-delayed negotiations to end the formal state of war between the two countries.

But Friday's talks between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Japanese counterpart, Seiji Maehara, appeared to break down amid a toughening of lines on both sides.

"When radical approaches gain the upper hand in Japan and are shared by the country's leadership, of course it is useless to conduct any discussion on this issue," Mr. Lavrov said at a tense joint press conference following the meeting

"Moscow proceeds from the assumption that dialogue will only be possible if Tokyo gives up its bellicose public rhetoric against Russia. Signing a string of long-term agreements is never easy," Lavrov added.

"The Northern Territories are indigenous territories of Japan," Mr. Maehara replied.

The Russians complain that the Japanese government is using the Kuril Islands to stoke nationalist passions instead of moving toward a reasonable compromise on the issue. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan this week described Mr. Medvedev's trip to the islands last year as "an unforgivable outrage."

Russian analysts, who are generally supportive of the Kremlin view, say the issue is being exploited by Japanese leaders for domestic political reasons.

"Japanese officials are changing their tune under the influence of radical forces in Japan," says Sergei Mikheyev, head of the Center for Political Conjuncture, an independent Moscow think tank. "The Japanese position has hardened noticeably since Medvedev went to the Kuriles, but doesn't the president have the right to go anywhere in Russia?"

In advance of the ministerial meeting this week, Medvedev declared the Kuril Islands to be "an inseparable part of Russia" and ordered Russian armed forces to beef up the territory's defenses with unspecified new modern weaponry.

On Friday, Lavrov suggested handing over the contentious territorial dispute to a joint Russian-Japanese committee of historians to debate, a plan Maehara dismissed as being "without prospects."

Russia wants to focus on creating a free trade zone on the islands, which could become a portal for much-needed Japanese investment into Russia's underdeveloped, but resource-rich, far eastern region.

"The idea is to move toward a compromise (on the islands) by developing our economic cooperation and raising it to a higher level," says Elgena Molodyakova, head of the official Center for Japanese Studies in Moscow. "But positions are locked, with the Japanese insisting the islands must be returned, and Russian policy equally firm that they are our sovereign territory."

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