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Ex-Russian envoy to Japan says Tokyo should propose the return of two islands

By Akira Kurita in Moscow


The Japanese and Russian governments are laying the groundwork for concrete economic cooperation projects and a solution to the Northern Territories issue ahead of President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Japan in December. Will Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “new approach” to the territorial issue result in a breakthrough? We asked former Russian Ambassador to Japan Alexander Panov, who was involved in Japan-Russia negotiations for many years, about the outlook.


Like President Putin, I have high regard for Prime Minister Abe’s policy on Russia. It is necessary to create an atmosphere for signing a peace treaty and for solving  the Northern Territories issue. While I appreciate Prime Minister Abe’s promotion of economic cooperation with Russia, economics is just one of many areas. The conditions will be ripe when exchanges in the political, security, cultural, and other areas move forward.


The Japan-Soviet joint communique signed in 1956 when the two countries restored diplomatic relations stated that the islands of Habomai and Shikotan will be handed over to Japan after the conclusion of a peace treaty. Mr. Putin made proposals based on the joint communique in the past but they were rejected by Japan. He will not make the same proposals again because he would lose face. If Japan proposes (a solution based on the joint communique), that would become the basis of negotiations. It is not possible to resolve this issue with the simultaneous return of all four islands, including Kunashiri and Etorofu. I do not know the details of Prime Minister Abe’s “new approach,” but this is probably taken into account.


Russia has the obligation to return the two islands based on the joint communique, but it has no obligation at all with regard to the two other islands. The final solution that Japan is seeking cannot be realized any time soon. What happens from now on will depend on the negotiations.


There will be a backlash by both Japanese and Russian publics even with the return of two islands. However, a strong leader will be able to persuade the public. There was also criticism leveled against the Russian government  during the proecess of resolving territorial issues with China and Norway. But this criticism subsided eventually.


If both sides are able to compromise and reach an agreement during Mr. Putin’s visit in December, the diplomats will be able to handle the concrete issues. This will be the second chance to resolve the territorial issue. The first chance was during the Obuchi and Mori administrations in the late 1990s to around 2000.

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