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FOCUS: Russia sees 'action plan' as way to defuse isles row

MOSCOW, Jan. 10 (Kyodo) - By: Tsukasa Arita. After all the handshakes and the signing of an ''action plan'' for future bilateral ties, Russia hopes the summit between Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Russian President Vladimir Putin will usher in a new start in its relations with Japan that would be unburdened of a nagging territorial dispute.

There would appear to be two main strands in Russia's diplomatic calculations -- economic incentives and the North Korean nuclear issue.

Putin is perhaps the only world leader who has built cozy ties with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who has twice visited Russia in the two past years.

With the world now on tenterhooks on whether North Korea will ignore international warnings and press ahead with its nuclear ambitions, Japan wants Russia to work on North Korea and get a breakthrough in the nuclear standoff.

On the economic front, Russia is looking to Japan for investment in its projects to develop oil and gas resources in Siberia, in which Japan has expressed keen interest in order to diversify its oil and gas sources.

The apparent convergence of interests -- Russia's North Korean connection and potential Japanese investment in Siberia -- is giving Russia hopes that it could shelve the decades-old dispute with Japan over the sovereignty of several islands in the northern Pacific.

Japan, which lost the islands off northeastern Hokkaido at the end of World War II, is eager to get them back and end a dispute that has prevented the two countries from concluding a peace treaty.

Russia, at one point, seemed ready to return the two smallest of the four islands -- known in Japan as the Northern Territories -- but Japan showed little interest to follow up.

And the Russian interest of a settlement seems to have all but evaporated following the downfall last year of Muneo Suzuki, a powerful Japanese politician who had argued that Japan should first seek a partial return of the disputed islands.

To Putin, the Russian domestic agenda is now assuming greater prominence, with parliamentary elections due toward the end of this year and a presidential election in the following spring.

This Russian stand is reflected in the language of the ''action plan,'' which Koizumi and Putin signed at the Kremlin on Friday. Designed as a road map for a broad range of bilateral relations, the action plan has glossed over the Northern Territories issue.

Russian government officials see the action plan, which also covers economic ties and cultural exchanges, as a sign that Japan no longer pursues a single-track territorial demand.

''Japan has always focused on the territorial issue, and this is the first time that the Japanese have become realistic,'' one Russian diplomatic source said, reflecting on the comprehensive nature of the action plan.

It is uncertain, however, how much Russia can deliver on North Korea. Moscow, the public perception of its strong ties to Pyongyang notwithstanding, apparently is struggling to find its bearings in the North Korean nuclear conundrum.

Russia, after all, may not have all that much influence over North Korea, but may find it a diplomatic asset for it to be seen in Tokyo that it does.

Russian officials, of course, are aware that Koizumi is hard pressed to find a way out of the maze of disputes surrounding North Korea's abduction of Japanese nationals, a politically emotional issue that has derailed Tokyo's attempt to normalize diplomatic ties with Pyongyang.

By promising to work on North Korea, Russia's objective apparently is to present the deal as a sort of diplomatic favor to the Japanese government.

The Japanese government, on its part, is apparently counting on a Putin victory in next year's presidential election for a breakthrough in the negotiations for a peace treaty in Putin's second term.

Japanese expectations, however, may be way off the mark.

Russia may show that it is willing to pursue treaty negotiations, but in the end what appears to count most, in Moscow's eyes, is the pursuit of economic ties.

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