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Abe, Putin post-summit comments reveal different priorities

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow on April 27 to start giving concrete form to joint economic development cooperation on disputed islands just northeast of Hokkaido, fulfilling a pledge the two leaders made at a summit four months ago.

Specifically, Abe and Putin agreed on making a list of top-priority projects while also expanding opportunities for former Japanese residents of the Northern Territories (as the Russian-controlled islands are collectively known in Japan) to visit family graves there.

Through these initiatives to boost Japan-Russia "coexistence" on the islands, the Japanese government is looking to set the stage for a final resolution of the territorial dispute. However, during the leaders' joint news conference following their discussion, Putin indicated strongly that he was most interested in economic cooperation, and barely touched on negotiations for a permanent peace treaty between the two nations.

The April 27 summit was the 17th between Abe and Putin (including three during Abe's first turn as prime minister in 2006-2007). After a delay of about 30 minutes, Putin started proceedings by calling Japan "a friendly neighbor and a partner with great promise." He went on to add, "At our last meeting, we agreed to invigorate relations between our countries, and we have made progress on that. At this summit, I expect us to take the next step in building cooperation."

In his opening statement, Abe expressed his condolences for the victims of the recent subway bombing in St. Petersburg, and said that he wanted the two leaders "to speak on the state of the region, security issues, and bilateral relations including the peace treaty problem."

No formal peace treaty was signed between Japan and the former Soviet Union after World War II -- a state of affairs that has continued into the post-Soviet era. The Soviet Union occupied the Northern Territories at the end of World War II.

Putin sees economic cooperation with Japan in the Northern Territories as one link in bilateral economic cooperation overall, which in turn relates directly to Russian economic development. In other words, Russia is far less enthusiastic about solving bilateral issues -- such as the inking of a peace treaty -- than Japan, and the differences in priorities were on full display at the post-summit news conference.

Putin spent the majority of his time speaking about how highly he valued bilateral economic cooperation for the development of the Russian Far East. Abe, meanwhile, focused on economic cooperation in the Northern Territories specifically, as well as the agreement on expanded grave visits by former residents.

"Even if the start is small, I want to build up this kind of collaboration and make the most of joint economic activities (in the Northern Territories). At the finish line of our mutual efforts is the peace treaty that I and Vladimir are aiming for," Abe stated.

Prime Minister Abe attaches a great deal of importance to building a trusting relationship with Putin on a personal level, and told reporters at the news conference, "Vladimir and I want to join hands and journey down the road to a peace treaty together."

However, even if Japan and Russia make progress on "coexisting" on the four islands of the Northern Territories, that does not mean the two countries can reach a final solution to the territorial dispute in a single bound. Russia is skeptical of Japan's preference for a "special structure that does not harm either county's legal position," likely because Moscow does not want to appear to have made any concessions on the issue.

Meanwhile, there is less than a year left before Russia's next presidential election in March 2018, and "it will probably be difficult (for Russia) to make decisions on territorial issues around election time," commented one senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official.

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