Kuril Islands Stymie Russo-Japanese Peace
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on January 22. Their talk focused on “bilateral cooperation in political, trade, economic, and humanitarian areas,” according to Russian state media, but the major item on the agenda was a potential peace treaty between the two states.
Japan and Russia are party to one of the longest unresolved territorial disputes in the world. Their conflicting claims to a group of four islands known in Russia as the Kuril Islands and in Japan as the Northern Territories has stood for more than seventy years. Russia captured this area in 1945, after Japan surrendered to Allied Forces during World War II. The disagreement over who owns the land has continued ever since and prevented the two nations from signing a peace treaty after the War. The two sides are now hoping to move to make progress towards finally concluding such a treaty.
Prime Minister Abe expressed optimism at a press conference following the meeting, calling the cooperation “unprecedented” and listing several areas of bilateral cooperation between Russia and Japan. President Putin took a more measured tone telling media that there remained “long and painstaking work ahead to create proper conditions for reaching mutually acceptable solutions.”
Putin’s lukewarm remarks may reflect the strong domestic opposition he faces to resolving the agreement. He made sure to mention that any agreement would need to be “acceptable to the peoples of Russia and Japan and supported by both,” a reference to the Russian’s public’s hostility towards ceding territory to Japan. Around 500 people gathered in Moscow on Sunday to protest handing over the islands. With recent polls putting his popularity at only 33.4 percent, Putin likely does not feel secure enough to move towards an unpopular measure like a peace treaty.
Meanwhile, for Abe, resolving the dispute would be a massive political win. He publicly committed to resolving the issue before the end of his term more than two years ago. He will need a resolution before November to keep that promise. In service of that goal, he has been pushing an ambitious eight point plan to improve bilateral cooperation in cultural, economic, and security fronts. The program led to the countries kicking off their first “cross-cultural year,” and hosting 500 events related to that initiative in the past six months. It has also spurred efforts to organize “joint economic activities” on the disputed islands in the areas of aquaculture, greenhouse farming, wind power generation, tourism and waste treatment, and addressing environmental issues. Prime Minister Abe highlighted many of these initiatives in his post-meeting address.
However, Abe has also stymied negotiations at different points along the way. As recently as September, when both leaders attended the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, President Putin suggested that Tokyo and Moscow conclude a peace treaty “before the end of the year without any preconditions” while on stage at a plenary session. Prime Minister Abe, seated on Putin’s right on the same stage, rejected the treaty since it would have meant effectively renouncing Japanese claim to the islands.
This most recent meeting was the latest in a series of examples of each leader expressing willingness and optimism around resolving the longstanding dispute. On the other hand, each has also made clear that their sovereignty over the islands in question is non-negotiable. With neither side willing to stand down from that position, it is difficult to see this latest talk leading to new progress.