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Column: Can PM Abe resist Russia’s position on the Northern Territories?

By Shin Tokiwa, Moscow Bureau

 

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, southern Russia, on May 6. Amid the impasse in the negotiations for the conclusion of a peace treaty, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and other officials are even denying the existence of the Northern Territories issue. This is historical revisionism that the Japanese government should definitely resist.

 

Lavrov stated that the Japan-Soviet joint communique of 1956 constituted both sides’ “affirmation of their acceptance of the results of World War II.” He asserted that the peace treaty negotiations are not directly related to negotiations on the territorial issue. This cannot be farther from the truth.

 

From 1955, Japan had engaged in serious territorial talks with the Khrushchev regime for the purpose of signing a peace treaty to confirm “the results of World War II.” The two countries failed to reach an agreement on the territorial issue, so they stopped at restoration of diplomatic relations. The “Matsumoto-Gromyko Exchange of Notes” released at that time indicated that the two sides agreed on continuing negotiations on the peace treaty, including the territorial issue.

 

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the basic bilateral agreement to “negotiate on sovereignty over the four Northern Islands and conclude a peace treaty” has been maintained. What Lavrov said amounts to negating the history of Japan-Russia negotiations.

 

Japan is pinning its hopes on a political decision by Putin, the supreme leader. However, it is unlikely that Lavrov would have said something contrary to Putin’s policy.

 

The top priority for Putin right now is the sanctions imposed by the Western countries on account of the Ukraine crisis. Constantine Simis, an American expert on Russia, observes that the sanctions “deal a serious blow not only to Russia’s economy, but also to its geopolitical position.” Progress in its relations with Japan, the G7 Summit host, is important for Russia as a counterbalance to the Western countries.

 

Recently, Putin has been saying that Russia will be able to “reach a compromise with Japan eventually” provided there is “uninterrupted dialogue.” This is a tactic to draw economic cooperation and other benefits from Japan continuously by adopting a positive stance on bilateral negotiations.

 

The Japanese government’s response has also been questionable. It has been more than 10 years since the Putin regime shifted to a tough stance. Yet, the government has not taken any retaliatory measures even though Russia pushed forward with unilateral development of the Northern Territories and sent senior officials to the islands. Protest that is not backed by any concrete action is regarded by Russia as a sign of weakness.

 

Is Putin really trying to relegate the history of Japan-Russia talks after the disintegration of the USSR to oblivion? If Russia claims that the 1956 joint communique is the only basis for negotiations, Japan should be prepared to suspend cooperative relations. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s diplomatic skills in dealing with Russia are being put to the test on this issue that he has been working on for a long time.

 

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