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Russian official’s remarks indicate “hope” for Japan-Russia territorial talks

By Takao Toshikawa, editor of Insideline


Yuri Saplin, a counsellor at the Russian Embassy in Tokyo (responsible for bilateral relations and political affairs), told me: “Since President Putin accepted the invitation to meet in Prime Minister Abe’s hometown in Yamaguchi Prefecture, I don’t think he will disappoint the Prime Minister.”


I recently had a long off-the-record meeting with Saplin, who said: “I also think the president will not do anything that will make the Japanese media report that the Japan-Russia summit was a failure.”


Saplin is Putin’s Japanese interpreter. Since the start of the second Abe cabinet in December 2012, Abe has had 12 meetings with Putin. Saplin interpreted at all of these meetings.


Abe and Putin met three times recently. It is notable that most of the discussions were conducted tete-a-tete (informal summit meetings with only interpreters present and no minutes-takers).


The May 7 meeting in Sochi, southern Russia, and the Sept. 2 meeting in Vladivostok in the Far East consisted of 40 and 55 minutes of tete-a-tete discussions, respectively. Furthermore, 35 minutes out of the 70-minute Abe-Putin meeting in Lima, Peru, on Nov. 19 was conducted tete-a-tete.


Saplin will also interpret for Putin at the hot spring inn Otani Sanso in Nagato City, Yamaguchi, on Dec. 15 and at the summit meeting in the Kantei (Prime Minister’s Official Residence) in Tokyo on Dec. 16.


Therefore, what Saplin said cannot be taken lightly.


As Putin’s visit to Japan approaches, there have been detailed reports on the eight-point plan for economic cooperation with Russia, but the media’s dominant tone on the peace treaty and Northern Territories negotiations is pessimistic.


However, going back to Saplin’s remarks, what will be the agreement on the territorial issue that “will not disappoint Prime Minister Abe”?


The keyword is “free travel” to the four Northern Islands. The two leaders will agree on expanding the current visa-free exchange program and allow the free flow of people, goods, and funds. What lies ahead will be a plan for joint government (joint economic activities) on Habomai and Shikotan by creating a special economic zone and setting conditions on judicial and administrative powers. In that case, there will be a declaration on the demilitarization of the two islands.


The two leaders will announce at their news conference on Dec. 16 the start of full-fledged negotiations for the conclusion of a peace treaty in the new year. There is still hope. (Abridged)

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