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#36 - JRL 2009-90 - JRL Home
RIA Novosti
May 14, 2009
Putin in Japan: Economics outweighs politics

MOSCOW (Andrei Kuznetsov) - It looks as if Russian leadership has finally chosen the solely correct line of behavior with regard to Japan' s demand to solve the territorial problem (i.e. to return the four Southern Kuril islands annexed with the consent of the Allies at the end of World War II).

First, on no account to deny the existence of the problem and to avoid the famous utterances by the late Andrei Gromyko: "for us the territorial problem does not exist", and "we do not have redundant land"; second, to stress the need for a mutually acceptable final solution for both peoples; third, to urge the need to create an atmosphere of mutual trust and broader cooperation between the two countries in all areas; and finally, fourth, to hint that the solution of the problem in the near or medium term is unlikely.

This time around - before and during Prime Minister Putin's visit to Tokyo - the Japanese side was going out of its way, at the official and unofficial levels, to find out whether some shifts could be expected, whether Russia would "signal" its readiness to hand over to Japan the four southernmost Kuril Islands. All the Russians they contacted said - some with sympathy and some with glee - that there was no chance: Mr.Putin's visit is strictly "economic" and talk of the territorial issue would be just a show of politeness to the hosts.

The Japanese cannot come to terms with the simple fact that the development of bilateral social and economic ties alone can eventually lead to the resolution of the territorial issue, but are still adamant in insisting that all the four islands be given back at once. However, in an interview before his departure for Tokyo, the Prime Minister was asked what he thought about a proposed 50:50 solution (i.e. handing over to Japan half of the total area of the four islands).

"How can you ask me to comment on a position that has not been clearly formulated?" the Prime Minister answered a question with a question. "Let us stay in the dialogue, let us allow our analysts and Foreign Ministries to do their jobs." In the meantime, he stressed, "It was and is our view that the solution of issues of this level and complexity requires a careful and respectful attitude toward the interests of each party, and patience." In short, stock up on patience, guys.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry reporting the results of the meeting says that the parties will continue the talks on the territorial issue at the bilateral meeting during the G8 summit in Italy in July. There is no doubt they will, especially since at the final press conference the Russian premier, suavely shifting the burden of discussing the tricky topic with the Japanese onto President Medvedev's shoulders, said: "All the options (of solving the problem) will be discussed at the July summit." The result, though, is likely to be the same as usual.

In the meantime, promoting economic ties is the name of the game. In that department, Vladimir Putin's visit to Tokyo has delivered something of a breakthrough. The visit produced about ten documents including four inter-governmental agreements and five agreements on banking.

The visit produced a dazzling array of opportunities: Japanese companies will take part in building an oil refinery in Tatarstan; Prime Minister Putin has invited them to join the development of Sakhalin -3 and to build an oil pipeline to the Pacific coast.

It has become commonplace to speak about the steadily growing trade between our countries, but it is still 20 time less than Japan's trade with China. The documents signed during the Putin visit, above all the agreement on nuclear cooperation, may change the situation significantly. If, as Rosatom Director General Sergei Kiriyenko has announced, the joint projects between Atomenergoprom and the Japanese company Toshiba - building a uranium enrichment plant, creating IAEA monitored Russian low-enriched uranium storage facilities on the nuclear fuel sites, etc. - are implemented, it spells billions of dollars in profits for both sides.

One cannot help wondering how the U.S. allowed Japan such strategic license in relations with Russia. Could it be an early element of the much-touted "reset" of Russian-American relations?

There has been a groundswell of opinion among certain Japanese circles in recent months that the world financial crisis would leave Russia cash-strapped and that it would ask Tokyo for loans, and then Japan could "go for the jugular" and press Moscow into "returning" the islands. Hopefully, things will not develop according to that scenario.

The hope is indirectly fueled by semi-official comments on the results of the visit. Many influential figures in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the biggest opposition Democratic Party of Japan have suggested that the global nature of the issues under negotiation, including nuclear weapons, the launching of the North Korean ballistic missile and measures to cope with the world economic crisis "have demonstrated an awareness of the growing need for closer interaction between the two countries, while the content of the documents signed demonstrate significantly increased interaction in the solution of both world and bilateral problems."

In the opinion of Japanese politicians, the solution of the territorial problem cannot be shelved, but "simultaneously it is necessary to develop all the spheres of cooperation with Russia whereby Japan could expand its diplomatic influence in the world and boost its authority in the international community."