In a rare visit to Russia, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met President Vladimir Putin for talks at the Black Sea resort of Sochi and the two leaders agreed to take a “new approach” to the decades-long territorial dispute over four southernmost islands in the Pacific Kuril chain 

MOSCOW–Russia pledged to view Japan as an “important partner” in Asia-Pacific and both nations renewed efforts to settle the territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) welcomes Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Sochi on May 6
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) welcomes Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Sochi on May 6

As Russian President Vladimir Putin met visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on May 6 in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, the meeting was not expected to mark a breakthrough in efforts to settle decades-long dispute over the Kuril Islands.

However, the top level bilateral talks lasted three hours and appeared to indicate improving atmosphere of conversation as Russia apparently departed from its earlier hard-line stance.

Putin described Japan as Russia’s “important partner” in Asia-Pacific, while Abe noted progress in bilateral relations, in accordance with the Kremlin’s press-service. After the talks, Abe mentioned a “new approach” to the territorial dispute. However, details of this new approach are yet to be disclosed.

Yet despite encouraging rhetoric, notably talk of the “new approach,” strictly speaking, on May 6 both sides only agreed to continue negotiations. Talks on the peace treaty are due to be continued by deputy foreign ministers of Russia and Japan in June, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced following talks in Sochi. Putin and Abe also agreed to resume meetings of foreign and defense ministers in a so called 2+2 format, Lavrov said.

The Russian media outlets largely welcomed the meeting in Sochi. The official RIA Novosti news agency highlighted Abe’s “new approach” to the territorial dispute. NTV television channel noted “constructive” talks on the Kurils.

In recent years, attempts to organize a meaningful meeting between the leaders remained slow to materialize. Most recently, Putin was due to travel to Japan in late 2015. However, the visit was postponed as talks between diplomats did not entail any progress on the territorial dispute.

Last year, Moscow became upset by Japan’s support of the Western sanctions against Russia. Hence the Kremlin tried to take a more hard-line stance on the territorial dispute.

In August 2015, the bilateral political ties reached new lows after Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev traveled to the Kuril Islands despite vocal objections from Japan. The Kremlin insisted that the country’s top officials would keep visiting the disputed Southern Kurils despite Japanese protests.

In August 2015, Medvedev stated that Russian officials “visited, visit and will visit” the Kuril Islands and ordered cabinet members to travel to the islands more frequently.

However, in recent months the Kremlin apparently dropped the hard-line tactics. Russia’s top officials refrained from high-profile visits to the Kuril Islands. In April 2016, Putin argued that a compromise solution over the disputed Kuril Islands “can and will be found.”

In recent years, Russian officials have urged to develop bilateral trade and economic ties so as to create conditions for signing the peace treaty eventually. But Moscow has been refusing to discuss a return to Japan of four islands, Kunashir, Iturup, Shikotan and Habomai, known as the Southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan. Moscow has consistently dismissed Japan’s insistence to return all four islands.

Moscow was also keen to develop the Kuril Islands without reliance on foreign investors. In August 2015, the Russian government approved a new program to develop the Kuril Islands in 2016-2025. The program is expected to cost 70 billion rubles (more than $1 billion) in federal and regional grants and subsidies to finance infrastructure development, residential and road construction.

The Kremlin was also keen not to create an impression that the latest reconciliatory tone towards Japan was an attempt to overcome the perceived international isolation of Russia. Lavrov said that the Western sanctions imposed on Russia and supported by Japan were not discussed at all at the meeting in Sochi. However, the Kremlin was apparently interested in closer ties with Japan even at the cost of the “compromise solution” of the territorial dispute.

Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based independent journalist and researcher. In the past three decades, he has been covering Asian affairs from Moscow, Russia, as well as Hanoi, Vietnam and Vientiane, Laos. He is the author of non-fiction books on Vietnam, and a contributor of a handbook for reporters.

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