Due West: Looking into the Russian-Japanese island spat

“If you have two sides, and one of them says that there is no problem to discuss, while the other says that there is, it actually means that there is a problem. So, although the official Soviet position is that the so-called Northern territories problem does not exist, in fact it does.”

“If you have two sides, and one of them says that there is no problem to discuss, while the other says that there is, it actually means that there is a problem. So, although the official Soviet position is that the so-called Northern territories problem does not exist, in fact it does.” 

These were the words of Dr. Sergei O., a young teacher of contemporary Japanese history. The time is 1982, and I am a first year student of the Moscow University Institute of Asian and African Studies. Dr. O (he is a businessman now) was leading a group of students of the Middle East through a crash course of Russian-Japanese relations to expand our understanding of the USSR’s complex foreign policy. His seemingly trivial phrase has stuck in my mind ever since.

The Soviet Union is gone, but the official Moscow claim that there is nothing to discuss is only slightly modified. Russia is ready to hear the Japanese point of view again and again, but is very clear about its lack of desire to change anything in its stance regarding Shikotan, Habomai, Kunashir and Iturup – the four islands of the Kuril archipelago that Russia calls the Southern Kurils, and Japan – the Northern Territories. 

President Dmitry Medvedev recently became the first Russian head of state to visit the island of Kunashir. This provoked a diplomatic row with Tokyo and lead to a brief recall of the Japanese ambassador to Russia. The scandal was put out within days when Medvedev met Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan during the G20 summit in Yokohama.

It seems that Japan’s reaction to the trip was more ritual than angry, because Kan and his team figured out: Medvedev’s tour of the Kurils had no particular foreign policy goal and bore all the markings of an exercise in public affairs aimed primarily at the domestic audience. Hence the quick “kiss and make up” conclusion to the scandal.

Although it looks like the Japanese are prepared to wait indefinitely for any sign of possible resolution, while there is nothing to stop Russia from indefinitely maintaining its sovereignty over the islands, the story of the Kuril dispute is trickier than it may seem. The fact that the two countries still have not signed a peace treaty after World War II may look irrelevant to a layman: Moscow and Tokyo maintain full diplomatic relations, lively economic and cultural ties and rarely argue over anything but the islands. But the Kuril Islands issue poisons the atmosphere of bilateral relations and makes old rivalries look up to date. If you wish, it is one of the most important examples in modern politics where symbols and written agreements do matter.

The Japanese perceive their position as strong: the islands were never part of Russia prior to 1945, Stalin’s attack on Japan in August 1945 happened in violation of the Soviet-Japanese non-aggression pact, the Japanese population of the archipelago was forcibly expelled, and finally, the 1956 bilateral Moscow declaration promises at least two islands, Shikotan and Habomai, to Japan after the conclusion of the peace treaty.

Moscow on the one hand maintains a kind of “crack in the door” attitude, never denying in principle the possibility of a solution. But at the same time it counters Tokyo’s arguments with a set of its own: Japan was Germany’s ally in WWII and hence a potential danger, the Yalta accords between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill (which established the Soviet claim to the Kurils) created a framework of the post-war settlement as a whole, and, finally, the Japanese have undermined their claims to the two islands mentioned in the 1956 declaration because, being America’s allies in the Cold War, they had to follow Washington’s hard line and demand “all or nothing at all” and demanded from Moscow a promise of sovereignty over all four islands as a precondition to signing the peace treaty.

Things are changing fast in Asia though. Russia is trying to figure out how to use the enormous potential of the region to boost development of its Far East, acquire technologies, sell commodities and generally participate in the prosperity fest that the region experienced for most of the last three decades. At the same time it scans the horizon for potential security threats and, objectively speaking, the Korean peninsula, always teetering on the brink of war, as well as the growing military ambitions of China cause most of the unease.

How should the country’s security interests be squared with economic goals? In this respect, settling the long-standing dispute with Japan once and for all and to the satisfaction of both sides will have an enormous symbolic effect on Russia’s standing in Asia – which will eventually lead to practical outcomes. I’d go even further – this will be the moment when Russia will become a modern twenty-first century Asian power with its own range of interests and, hopefully one day, allies. Did I write “twenty-first century?” Yes, I did. I hope we will not have to wait until the next one.

Due West: Russia's NATO Dream


What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.

Konstantin Eggert is an independent Russian journalist and political analyst. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

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