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Northern Territories deadlock casts shadow over Japan-Russia economic activities

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attend the International Jigoro Kano Judo Tournament at the 5th Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. The city of Vladivostok in the Russian Far East is hosting the Eastern Economic Forum from Sept. 4-6. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

VLADIVOSTOK -- A deadlock in talks between Japan and Russia over sovereignty of the Russian-held Northern Territories and a bilateral peace treaty has cast a shadow over joint economic activities between the two countries.

Such activities have been viewed as a means to spur progress in negotiations on the bilateral territorial issue and the signing of a peace treaty.

However, Japan and Russia need to establish a legal framework for travel between Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido and the four Russian-controlled islands east of Hokkaido before beginning such activities.

Moscow has proposed a system allowing residents of the Russian island of Sakhalin, which effectively rules the Northern Territories, and those of Hokkaido to travel between these two areas without visas.

Tokyo, on the other hand, has insisted that such visa-free trips should be limited to Japan and the four islands -- Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets. In other words, Japan is demanding a system similar to one under which Japanese nationals and Russian residents of the four islands have been able to visit each other's home territories without visas.

However, a Russian diplomatic source said Moscow cannot accept Tokyo's demand.

"The visa-free exchange program is a special system that was agreed upon at the end of the Soviet Union era. A similar system is unacceptable," the source said.

There exists another obstacle to joint economic activities. Officials of the Japanese and Russian governments had initially thought they could launch specific projects in fields that do not violate Japanese or Russian legislation. But the two countries' work to narrow down projects to be covered by joint economic activities has exposed various legal problems.

For example, Japanese varieties of strawberry to be covered by a strawberry-growing program must be registered with the Russian government office in charge if they do not exist in the country. It is certain Japan will voice opposition to registering Japanese varieties of strawberry with Russian authorities because such a move would mean that Russian legislation applies to activities in areas Japan regards as part of its own territory.

"If Japan and Russia could agree at this stage to launch joint economic activities, it'd be a miracle," said a Russian negotiator.

(Japanese original by Issei Suzuki, Foreign News Department, and Hitoshi Omae, Moscow Bureau)

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