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Russian envoy: Interpretation of “handover” should be discussed

Interviewed by Keita Ikeda


The following is an interview with Russian Ambassador to Japan Mikhail Galuzin.


Question: How do you see the relationship between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Vladimir Putin?


Ambassador Mikhail Galuzin: The two leaders are engaging in constructive dialogue based on trust. They have met 24 times so far and already held talks four times this year alone. Their regular dialogues have been the driving force behind current Japan-Russia relations.


Q: The 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration, which serves as the basis for negotiations, specifies the return of the Habomai group of islands and the island of Shikotan to Japan after concluding a peace treaty between the two countries.


Galuzin: The Japan-Soviet joint declaration was ratified according to procedures in accordance with the laws of the two countries. The declaration is a document that serves as the legal basis for the bilateral relationship. So I think it is only natural that the declaration is used as the basis for negotiations. The joint declaration states that the two countries will end the state of war and restore peace and neighborly, friendly relations. Promoting negotiations on a peace treaty based on the spirit of neighborly friendship will  influence the overall Japan-Russia relations in a positive way.


But the expression of “handover” does not specify under what conditions, in what way, and in what form the handover will take place. The interpretation of “handover” needs to be discussed. 


Q: What is the focus of negotiations?


Galuzin: It’s important to respect each other’s feelings. We’re paying the utmost respect to Japanese people’s feelings toward the four islands. We have visa-free exchanges, allow grave visits by airplane, and guarantee the safe operations of Japanese fishing boats.


Meanwhile, Russians also have feelings. We achieved victory in World War II at the cost of 27 million lives. As a result, the Southern Kurils (the Northern Territories) were handed over to the Soviet Union based on an agreement among the Allied Powers. We also want the Japanese people to respect our feelings.


We also need to discuss in detail the impact of the Japan-U.S. military alliance on an agreement that is expected to be reached during negotiations based on the joint declaration.


Q: Japan takes the position that it will sign a peace agreement after resolving the issue of the attribution of the four islands.


Galuzin: The joint declaration only mentions the islands of Habomai and Shikotan. How can two islands be interpreted as four?


Q: The prime minister is indicating a willingness to resolve [the Northern Territories issue] during his three years remaining as president of the Liberal Democratic Party.


Galuzin: I respect this as Prime Minister Abe’s intention. But we have to discuss difficult and sensitive issues. It would be nice to produce results in a short period of time. But you don’t know [if this can be done] unless you try. 


Forcing the setting of a deadline to get things going carries risk. There would also be the new problem of how to explain things externally if we fail [to reach an agreement within the set time frame].




Northern Territories central to Russia’s security


The Northern Territories are of high value to Russia’s security.


Russia’s strategic nuclear submarines capable of firing ballistic missiles operate in the Sea of Okhotsk, which is enclosed by the Chishima Islands and the islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri. This sea is as “inviolable area” in Russia’s strategy toward the U.S. The Sea of Okhotsk is located on the “Northern Sea Route,” the shortest maritime passage connecting Europe and Asia, and has become increasingly important in recent years.


Russia expresses deep concern over the possible deployment of the U.S. military to the islands based on the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty in the event it hands the islands over to Japan. 


Possible grounds for Russia to insist that the Northern Territories belong to it is the “Yalta Agreement,” which was signed by the U.S., the U.K., and the Soviet Union in February 1945. It was a secret agreement that acknowledges the Soviet Union’s possession of the Chishima Islands and South Sakhalin.


Meanwhile, Japan remonstrates that the former Soviet Union illegally occupied the four islands after Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration and that the “Yalta Agreement” was a secret accord that does not bind it.


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