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Abe fails to find breakthrough as rift between Japan and Russia deepens

  • January 23, 2019
  • , Mainichi , p. 4
  • JMH Translation

By Shinichi Akiyama, Hitoshi Omae


MOSCOW – On Jan. 22, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held his 25th meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to achieve progress in negotiations on the signing of a peace treaty including the Northern Territories issue. On Jan. 14, the Japanese and Russian foreign ministers met, but their meeting ended only in highlighting the rift in positions between the two nations. Eight days later, Abe tried to find a breakthrough in this stagnation by leveraging his “relationship of trust” with Putin, but he failed to make concrete headway. The Russian leader appears to find it difficult to respond to Japan’s call for the return of the Northern Territories due to complicated issues at home.


At the Jan. 22 joint press conference, Abe reiterated his commitment to the signing of a peace treaty. He said he gave instructions to hold a foreign ministerial meeting or a vice-ministerial meeting by the special representatives of the two leaders in February to advance negotiations, but it is hard to say that the summit has produced much-expected results.


The Abe-Putin summit was initially aimed at getting back on track negotiations that had stalled during the Jan. 14 meeting between Foreign Minister Taro Kono and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. 


It is true that the foreign ministerial meeting produced little outstanding progress. An official with the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs pointed out that “the Japanese and Russian leaders will need to present a grand vision at their summit to address the stalemate.” Japan and Russia had also been expected to identify issues of priority in negotiations, arrange a visit by Abe to Russia in spring and “begin drafting clauses” of a peace treaty.


But at the latest summit, the Japanese and Russian leaders only agreed on a few things, such as grave visits by former residents of the islands by airplane for the third time and the facilitation of economic activities on the Northern Territories. At the joint press conference, Abe stressed that we “will promote joint efforts to find a mutually acceptable solution under my and President Putin’s leadership.” But that only proves that negotiations did not make substantial progress.


Abe has been telling people around him that “we must accelerate efforts to deal with Russia.” He is passionately seeking to clinch a deal with President Putin, who is scheduled to visit Japan for the G20 summit in June. As the ruling camp is predicted to face an uphill battle in this summer’s Upper House election, he may want to achieve “results” ahead of the race. Yet the outlook for negotiations remains dim.


Russia poised to deal with a peace treaty over a longer span of time


President Putin emphasized at his joint press conference with Abe that Japan and Russia must sign a peace treaty that is “supported by the people of the two countries.”


In Russia, the public had not shown a strong interest in the Northern Territories issue for some time, but concern about the territorial handover has been spreading since peace treaty negotiations began this month. Putin’s comment at the press conference highlights that the Russian leader may have taken into consideration this public sentiment.


On Jan. 20, the opposition camp, which includes a range of both leftists and rightists, held a rally against the handover in Moscow, drawing about 2,000 participants. On Jan. 22, a similar rally was held in front of the Japanese Embassy in Moscow. According to informed sources, at least 15 people were arrested.


In peace treaty negotiations, Russia has been calling on Japan to make concessions on issues concerning the history related to the outcome of World War II as well as the U.S. forces in Japan. It may use growing anti-handover sentiment to mount pressure on Japan to move forward negotiations.


On the other hand, if public interest in the territorial issue continues to grow stronger, the Putin government may turn assertive to tighten control on public opinion. But when to tighten control may become a difficult decision to make. According to a Russian diplomatic source, Russia is “pessimistic about reaching a basic agreement for signing a peace treaty by June.” Nonetheless, if negotiations make progress beyond all expectations, anti-handover sentiment may become an obstacle.


Russia wants Japan’s cooperation in a range of economic fields. After the Japan-Russia foreign ministerial talks on Jan. 14, Lavrov mentioned that Russia is looking to work closely with Japan in nuclear energy and space.   


In Russia it has been rumored since the end of last year that Russia is seeking to build a long-term storage facility for radioactive waste in cooperation with Japan. Japan and Russia signed a nuclear energy pact in 2009, but no projects have taken shape yet. An expert on the Japan-Russia relationship gives the following analysis: “Russia may want to get Japan engaged in a large project so it cannot reverse its policies with Russia after Abe steps down.” Abe aims to conclude a peace treaty while he is in office, whereas Russia is poised to deal with the issue over a longer span of time. (Abridged)

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