Putin, Abe hold summit to break island impasse

File photo of Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Dec 1, 2018.
File photo of Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Dec 1, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW (AFP) - The leaders of Russia and Japan hold talks in Moscow on Tuesday (Jan 22) over the disputed island chain that has long prevented a peace treaty to formally end World War II.  But recent rhetoric has dampened hopes of a breakthrough.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit marks the 25th time he and Russian President Vladimir Putin have met since 2013, a reflection of their efforts to build cooperation despite their territorial disagreement.

The Soviet army seized the four Kuril islands, between the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean, in the last days of World War II.  Tokyo’s refusal to recognise Moscow’s sovereignty there has been a barrier to peace for more than seven decades. 

Despite a flurry of diplomacy since November, when the two leaders agreed to accelerate peace talks, recent statements from both capitals suggest a compromise is still far off. 

Moscow responded furiously to a New Year’s message from Abe in which he said Russians living on the islands should be helped to accept that the “sovereignty of their homes will change”.  Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Japan should stop referring to the islands as its “Northern Territories” in legislation and described Tokyo’s military alliance with Washington as problematic. 

Tokyo needed to recognise Russia’s sovereignty over the Kurils, said Lavrov.  “Why is Japan the only country in the world that cannot accept the results of World War II in their entirety?” he asked. 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the negotiations would likely be a “drawn out” process – further cooling hopes for a quick resolution.  Abe’s Moscow visit is the first leg of a trip to Europe, which will also include a speech at the Davos forum in Switzerland on Wednesday. 

Before his departure he acknowledged that “negotiations with Russia have been a challenge for more than 70 years” and hoped for “candid talks” with Putin.  

 
 

The two leaders have demonstrated a good personal relationship since Abe’s historic first visit to Moscow in 2013.

 Peskov said on Monday that Japan had not so far made any official proposals based on claiming just two of the islands in the chain. This possibility was mooted by the Soviet Union in the 1950s, prior to Tokyo’s alliance with the United States. 

Japan’s Kyodo news agency, citing government sources, said Abe was leaning toward accepting this framework for a peace deal.  But it is not clear whether the Kremlin would be keen to transfer sovereignty even for the two smaller islands, Shikotan and Habomai, which is actually a group of uninhabited islets.

The chain ensures Russia’s strategic control of the Sea of Okhotsk, and some southern islands in the chain are less than 10 kilometres (six miles) from Japan’s island of Hokkaido.  Giving away even uninhabited islands would be poorly received in Russia, where World War II is hugely symbolic and post-war territorial gains are seen as non-negotiable. 

On Tuesday, a small group of protesters holding leftist red flags gathered near the Japanese embassy in Moscow. Leftist politician Sergei Udaltsov wrote on Facebook that 11 people were detained by police.

 
 

 An opinion poll by independent Russian pollster Levada Centre last month suggested that 74 per cent of Russians would not support exchanging some of the islands for a peace deal, while only 17 percent said they would. 

To make a deal work “a vast majority of the public in Russia and Japan must support the agreement,” so the Kremlin must either convince Russians that the decision is for the public good or miss a rare opportunity to improve ties with its Asian neighbour, Dmitry Trenin, who heads the Carnegie Moscow Centre, wrote in the Vedomosti newspaper.

Russian state television has been unenthusiastic about the summit. 

Top news presenter Dmitry Kiselyov disputed the very notion that Japan could be a “friend” of Russia as long as it opposed Moscow’s policies and had US military “occupying” its territory. 

As for the Kurils, Kiselyov said on his popular “News of the Week” show that 90 per cent of Russians were against giving any of them back to Tokyo.  “Would Putin want to ignore this powerful public opinion?” he asked.

“Impossible,” he said.