Russia sees 'significant differences' with Japan on islands

A Japanese Coast Guard vessel sails off Cape Nosappu in Nemuro on Japan's Hokkaido island, with part of the islands known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia visible in the background, on April 14, 2017.
A Japanese Coast Guard vessel sails off Cape Nosappu in Nemuro on Japan's Hokkaido island, with part of the islands known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia visible in the background, on April 14, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW (BLOOMBERG) - Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov damped expectations of a breakthrough in a dispute with Japan over four islands that's prevented the signing of a World War II peace accord, saying the two countries "still have significant differences".

The government in Tokyo must recognise Russian sovereignty over the islands, known as the South Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan, as part of the outcome of the war, before progress can be made on a peace treaty, Lavrov told reporters Monday after talks in Moscow with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono.

"This is our basic position and without a step in this direction it is very difficult to count on any movement forward on other questions," he said.

It's "unacceptable" for Russia that the islands are described as the Northern Territories in Japan's laws and "we asked a number of questions about how our Japanese colleagues plan to move to overcome this particular problem," Lavrov said. Even so, Russia has "sufficient readiness and patience" to negotiate a settlement for a peace treaty, he said.

The apparent hardening in Russia's tone came after the Foreign Ministry in Moscow last week summoned the Japanese ambassador to protest recent comments by his government.

The ministry accused Japanese officials of creating tension around the issue and distorting a 1956 offer by the Soviet Union to resolve the dispute by handing back two of the islands seized by its forces near the end of the war. Russia also criticised the description of 2019 as a "turning point" in the talks.

The two sides had a "frank exchange" of views during the Moscow talks, Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Takeshi Osuga told reporters after the meeting. Still, he stressed that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have a "strong determination" to bring an end to the decades-old territorial dispute.

Putin and Abe will discuss issues related to a peace treaty at talks in Moscow on Jan 22, the Kremlin said in a statement Monday. This will be their 25th meeting since 2012.

The two leaders agreed in Singapore in November to accelerate efforts to resolve the dispute, using the 1956 declaration as the basis for negotiations. Abe said then that the issue "will be solved by Putin and me, and not left for the next generation."

Lavrov said it was "outrageous" that an adviser to Abe from his Liberal Democratic Party had stated that the US should be interested in Russia and Japan reaching a peace agreement in order to strengthen deterrence against China.

"We said this today with complete frankness" at the meeting with Kono, Lavrov said.

Kono said at the start of the talks that Japan expects Putin to visit the country in June. Unusually, the two ministers didn't hold a joint press conference after their meeting. Lavrov told reporters at his briefing that this was at the request of the Japanese side.

The Soviet Union seized the islands in 1945, expelling all 17,000 Japanese residents. Japan's official position is that the islands - home to rich fishing grounds - are an inherent part of its territory and are under illegal occupation. Russia insists that it owns them.