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Editorial: Putin’s stance conspicuously negative on northern territories / Joint economic activities relate to sovereignty

Russia’s cautious stance over the northern territories has become apparent once again. At the upcoming bilateral talks, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should tenaciously explore potential common ground between Japan and Russia.


Russian President Vladimir Putin accepted an interview in Moscow with The Yomiuri Shimbun and Nippon TV, prior to his visit to Japan on Thursday and Friday.


Concerning the bilateral negotiations on territorial issues, Putin emphatically said: “We will strive to sign a peace treaty. We want full-scale normalization of relations. The absence of a peace treaty is an anachronism.” At the least, we should positively evaluate Putin’s enthusiastic posture of seeking to improve bilateral relations between Japan and Russia.


‘1956 declaration basis’


Putin said he considers the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, which stipulates the transfer of two islands — the Habomai islets and Shikotan — to Japan to be “rules that should be put into the foundation of a peace treaty.”

Regarding the transfer of the two islands, he went on to say: “[The declaration] does not specify on what terms the islands should be transferred. There are too many questions about this issue.”


As to the return of all four of the northern territories, which include Kunashiri and Etorofu, Putin said: “We have already gone outside the bounds of the 1956 declaration. This is quite a different approach.”


By saying this, Putin indicated his position that even the transfer of the two islands will not be easy to realize and that the return of all four northern territories would be out of the question. With his upcoming visit to Japan, he may intend to have the Japanese side lower its expectations. But his assertion is too self-serving.


The settlement of the issue of to whom the four northern territories belong to has been recognized in official documents signed by both countries, including the 1993 Tokyo Declaration on Japan-Russia Relations. It is unreasonable to deny even the negotiations themselves.


Also questionable is Putin’s view that “as a result of World War II, it [that the four northern territories belong to Russia] has been enshrined in corresponding international documents.”


In the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, Japan renounced sovereignty over the Kuril Islands and South Sakhalin. But the treaty neither specified the exact scope of the Kuril Islands nor made reference to the four northern territories. And it must be remembered that the Soviet Union — in violation of the Japan-Soviet Neutrality Treaty — occupied the four northern territories illegally immediately after the end of World War II.


Abe is said to intend to realize the return of the two territories first, with an eye to continued negotiations over the remaining two. But there is no room for optimism with regard to the fate of the negotiations on the islands’ return.


More unimpeded visits


Without progress in the territorial talks, the conclusion of a peace treaty or the reinforcing of Japan-Russia relations could not be realized. Both leaders need to actively explore realistic solutions to the territorial issues.


With regard to concluding a peace treaty, the Russian leader said, “creating the conditions” for preparing a peace treaty is necessary. As specific steps, Putin mentioned large-scale joint economic activities and a package of other measures, including visa-free travel by former residents of the northern territories.


Joint economic activities were first proposed by Russia in the 1990s. The intent was to use Japanese capital for development of the four islands.


But it is problematic that Putin has insisted that joint economic activities be carried out under Russia’s sovereignty. Applying Russia’s domestic laws to the Japanese would lead to effective recognition of the Russian side’s sovereignty over the northern territories.


Joint economic activities must proceed in a way that will contribute to progress in territorial negotiations without compromising Japan’s legal position.


Expansion of the visa-free travel program will facilitate visits by former residents to cemeteries and other places. Furthermore, applying the program to those who engage in economic activities would serve as a stepping stone for joint economic activities. Abe should seek an agreement on a framework with a high degree of freedom.


Putin also emphasized the importance of “creating an atmosphere of trust and friendship between our nations and peoples.” The Russian president said Abe’s eight-point economic cooperation plan — including energy, medical services and urban development — that the two leaders are expected to agree on during this week’s top meeting will lead to “creation of a necessary atmosphere.”


Concerning economic cooperation, there are a number of cases that would benefit Japanese companies and other entities. However, details of the cooperation should match progress in territorial negotiations.


It should not be overlooked that Putin made such remarks as “How are we going to further economic relations on a new and much higher basis, at a higher level under the sanctions regime?” By saying this, the Russian president was apparently urging Japan to shelve its sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine situation.


Prioritize principles


Refering to the Japan-U.S. alliance, Putin also expressed doubts, commenting on “how much independence there is [for Japan] in making those decisions.” While U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s policies toward Japan remain unclear, Putin is apparently trying to rattle Japan in this regard.


However, Japan’s sanctions against Russia are a demonstration of Japan’s stance of not tolerating “changing the status quo by force” such as the annexation of Crimea. The cooperative ties of the Group of Seven countries should not be disrupted.


On relations with China, the Russian leader said, “We conducted talks on border issues [which were settled in 2004] with our friends in the People’s Republic of China for 40 years,” adding that ties with China are “the strategic character of privileged partnership.” With such remarks, Putin emphatically suggested Russia and China are in a “quasi-alliance.”


Japan is considering expanding security cooperation with Russia. But Putin’s remarks show that the road toward such expansion is not an easy one.

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