MOSCOW -- The summit between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin here on Jan. 22 produced little tangible results as Abe seeks a quick settlement of the territorial dispute with Moscow while Putin, faced with a complex domestic situation, is taking a more long-term approach toward the issue.
"Solving a problem that has been left for over 70 years after the end of the war is not easy," Abe told a joint news conference with Putin at the presidential palace in the Russian capital. "We must complete the task" of settling the bilateral row over the Northern Territories off Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, Abe added, emphasizing his resolve to make progress on the territorial issue and sign a peace treaty with Russia.
The four islands claimed by Japan have been under Moscow's control since the end of World War II when troops of the Soviet Union, Russia's predecessor state, occupied them.
Abe also told reporters that he instructed his foreign minister Yohei Kono and special representative Takeo Mori to advance negotiations by meeting with their Russian counterparts in February.
The latest summit came about a week after an apparently contentious meeting between Kono and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, who told a press conference after the meeting that Japan should "accept the results of World War II including Russia's sovereignty over the Southern Kurils (Northern Territories)." This argument runs counter to Japan's traditional claim that Russia is "illegally occupying" the four islands by waging a war against Japan by breaking the neutrality pact signed between Tokyo and Moscow in 1941.
A senior Japanese government official said that this Russian overture was "expected," and another individual close to the Tokyo government stated that Lavrov took a tough stance because the press event was televised and "he apparently had to help territorial hardliners vent their frustrations." The individual said "Putin has a different opinion."
The ministerial session, according to Japanese officials, was less tense than it appeared. Kono presented Lavrov with a brand of Japanese whiskey while Lavrov offered a pair of cuff links to the Japanese minister who just marked his 56th birthday, telling him that "56" is an important number in the bilateral relationship. His apparent reference to the 1956 Soviet-Japan joint declaration, which is the basis for the current negotiations, loosened up the atmosphere, according to people close to the talks. "There was nothing destructive in the negotiations," said an individual close to the prime minister's office.
The ministerial meeting, however, failed to advance the controversial issue, and a person close to the Japanese Foreign Ministry pointed out the need for the Jan. 22 summit to break the impasse. Some people expected the two leaders to identify priority issues for future talks, agree on another visit by Abe to Moscow in spring or start work on the text of a peace treaty. But none of these emerged this time.
The only agreements Abe and Putin reached was over the third graveyard visit by air to the islands by former Japanese residents, and the advancement of joint economic activities on the Northern Territories. The fact that Abe had to emphasize his stance of "promoting joint efforts to find solutions acceptable to both sides through our strong leadership" is indicative of a lack of tangible results in the territorial and peace treaty talks this time.
Abe is quoted as telling people close to him that he wants to tackle the issue "with speed" as he aims to reach a broad agreement with Putin on the territorial issue and a peace treaty when the Russian leader visits Japan in June to attend a Group of 20 summit in the western Japan city of Osaka. The premier apparently seeks such a result to shore up his Liberal Democratic Party in the House of Councillors election this summer as the ruling force is expected to fight an uphill battle.
--- Russia bracing for long fight
In his remark to the press after his meeting with Abe, Putin praised the talks as "businesslike and constructive," but emphasized that a peace treaty between Japan and Russia, to be signed with the settlement of the territorial disputes, "has to be something acceptable to the peoples of both countries."
This comment is an apparent response to a recent surge of opposition in Russia against the handover of the islands to Japan. In Moscow on Jan. 20, some 2,000 people from a variety of opposition forces banded together in a rally against such a move. Igor Strelkov, a former military officer who became a hero among nationalists for leading an irregular unit in Russia's intervention in Ukraine in 2014, urged that the opposition movement will continue if the government decides to hand over even part of the Kurils, which includes the four islands in Russian terminology. People against the handover staged a rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Moscow on the day of the summit on Jan. 22, with at least 15 of them detained, according to people familiar with the development.
The Putin administration seems intent on using such movements to pressure Japan into accepting Moscow's demands related to the historical perception of those islands and U.S. troops in Japan. Russia fears the United States, Japan's military ally, would deploy forces to any returned islands.
If the negotiations with Japan proceed, the autocratic administration may try to suppress the opposition, but judging the right timing for such a move doesn't look easy. An individual close to the Russian diplomatic community says that they are "pessimistic" about the possibility of the two countries reaching a broad agreement to sign a peace treaty by June.
Russia wants greater and wider economic cooperation with Japan, including for nuclear and space projects. In Russia, an initiative to set up a joint facility with Japan for the long-term storage of nuclear waste has been circulated since around late last year. A specialist on Japan-Russia relations sees Russia's intentions of having Japan make a large-scale commitment to the country so that the process would continue even after Abe's retirement as premier.
(Japanese original by Shinichi Akiyama, Political News Department and Hitoshi Omae, Moscow Bureau)