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Analyzing Lavrov’s remarks

By Masaru Sato, writer


Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov met in Moscow on Jan. 14. It was the first foreign ministerial meeting held after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Putin met in Buenos Aires on Dec. 1 last year and named Mr. Kono and Mr. Lavrov chief negotiators for a peace treaty.


Media outlets and diplomatic experts sometimes differ in opinion about foreign affairs. That is particularly true with respect to negotiations over the Northern Territories. We must be able to read the subtle nuances of Russia’s diplomacy and the thinking pattern of the Russians; otherwise, we can’t make a correct or accurate analysis.


The recent Japan-Russia foreign ministerial meeting ended successfully in laying the groundwork for a bilateral summit scheduled for Jan. 22. This was a big advantage for Abe diplomacy.


Diplomacy is performed by people. Mr. Kono presented Mr. Lavrov with “Hibiki,” a Japanese brand of whisky. In the arena of diplomacy, a present has an important meaning. In this instance it implied that Japan made a thoroughgoing background study of Mr. Lavrov, in which it learned he is fond of whisky. The Japanese and Russian foreign ministers met but could not bridge the gap between their respective standpoints. However, it is extremely significant that they showed a sincere attitude of endeavoring to resolve the Northern Territories issue.


Media coverage in Japan and Russia is sourced mainly from Mr. Lavrov’s press conference that was held after the foreign ministerial. The Sankei News on Jan. 15 posted the gist of his press remarks, quoting him as saying:


“The fundamental gap that remains between Japan and Russia must be closed before concluding a peace treaty. However, the leaders of Japan and Russia say they are determined to normalize relations between the two countries. Their determination will activate our discussions. I said to Foreign Minister Taro Kono again, ‘We cannot expect to see progress in our territorial negotiations as long as Japan does not recognize that as a result of World War II, the South Kurile Islands belong to Russia.’ I heard no rebuttal from him. I told Mr. Kono, ‘Japan calls the islands the Northern Territories. This naming is unacceptable to Russia. Japan’s law stipulates the islands as the Northern territories. How will you resolve this problem?’ We did not discuss issues concerning sovereignty over the islands. I asked to what extent Japan can be independent of the U.S. Mr. Kono said, ‘Japan-Russia peace treaty negotiations are to be promoted on the basis of the interests of Japan and Russia, not based on any other country’s wishes.’”


This press conference was broadcast live on Russia’s state-run television. This fact is what we should pay attention to. “We will not be out negotiated by Japan’s diplomatic offensive,” Mr. Lavrov said. He was showing his stance for the domestic audience in Russia.


In 1956, Japan and the Soviet Union released a joint declaration, under which Russia, the Soviet Union at the time, promised to hand over the Habomai group of islets and the island of Shikotan to Japan after concluding a peace treaty. Japan and Russia confirmed that Japan has sovereignty over the Habomai islands and Shikotan and Russia has sovereignty over Kunashiri and Etorofu, thereby demarcating the border between the two countries. Meanwhile, Russia will create a special framework granting Japan preferential treatment on Kunashiri  and Etorofu islands in the areas of people-to-people exchange, business activities, sightseeing, marine resources utilization, and so on. This is what Prime Minister Abe has in mind to resolve the Northern Territories issue with the return of Habomai and Shikotan plus something extra. His diplomatic strategy is being steadily translated into action.


Mr. Lavrov called on Japan to recognize that the South Kurile Islands belong to Russia as a result of World War II. Japan does not have to overreact to this assertion.


That is simply a reiteration of Russia’s consistent assertion since the Soviet Union days, maintaining that Japan must recognize that under the Yalta agreement of February 1945, the Kurile Islands (the Kurile Archipelago and the four northern islands, according to Russia’s understanding) were legitimately turned over to Russia, based on the Allied Powers’ agreement. The Yalta agreement was a secret accord. Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration on Aug. 14, 1945, and the Japanese people were informed of this fact on the following day, Aug. 15, with the broadcast of the Emperor’s announcement of Japan’s surrender. Japan signed the surrender on Sept. 2, 1945. At that time, Japan was not aware of the Yalta agreement. Japan learned of this secret agreement when the U.S. State Department announced the Yalta agreement on Feb. 11, 1946. There is no reason for Japan to be bound by the Yalta agreement, of which Japan had no knowledge when it surrendered.


Russia also knows that Japan’s assertion is reasonable. Mr. Lavrov conveyed to Mr. Kono a message saying in effect: “In order to persuade the Russian people, we can’t accept Japan’s argument that Russia unlawfully occupies the islands. I want you to understand this point well and demonstrate wisdom.” Japan’s Foreign Ministry must solve this homework.

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