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Political formula for the Kurils

Martin Fritz
December 2, 2016

Japan and Russia, for a long time, have been looking for a way to save face, while ending a decades-long territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands in the Northern Pacific.

Abe bei Putin in Moskau 29.04.2013
Image: Reuters

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin have met five times. Yet, there has never been a meeting between the two in Japan. That will change soon: When Putin visits Abe's home region Yamaguchi, in southern Japan, on December 15. A bilateral economic summit in Tokyo will follow on December 16. At the very top of the list of topics to be discussed: the disputed Kuril Islands. The islands lie between Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula and the Japanese island of Hokkaido; they are administered by Russia and claimed by Japan. Should the dispute finally be put to an end, Russia and Japan could formally sign a peace agreement - 71 years after the end of the World War II. In September, 1951, the Soviet Union refused to sign the Peace Treaty of San Francisco with Japan.

Expectations for a breakthrough rose considerably after Abe put a "new approach" to the issue on the table while meeting with Putin in Sochi, Russia, in May, 2016. He did not elaborate on the details at the time. There has, however, been speculation that the proposal was modeled on the so-called "two islands plus alpha" template. The proposal: Japan would take possession of the two smaller islands of Shikotan and Habomai, as well as receiving a further concession from Russia. Thereafter a peace treaty would be signed.

The "alpha" could be a common economic zone for the islands, or eventual shared possession of the two larger islands Kunashir and Etorofu. Japan is prepared to offer Russia generous economic help as an incentive. Nevertheless, few experts expect that a compromise will be reached at the upcoming summit. "The subject is far too complicated," stressed a former Japanese diplomat.

Karte Kuril Islands

Why is it so difficult to find a solution?

To date, nationalists in both countries have blocked the few attempts that have been made to find compromise. Russia considers the "Southern Kurils" to be its rightful spoils following Japan's defeat in the Second World War. Japanese nationalists insist that Russia turn over complete control of the "Northern Territories." Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Russians now live there. Those residents have been receiving special economic assistance from the Russian government since 2007. Moreover, military installations have been built on the islands as well, most recently, a missile defense station.

Putin will no doubt find it difficult to concede Russian territory. Abe, on the other hand, must fear the wrath of Japan's ultra-nationalists should his country regain only the smaller islands.

What attempts have been made so far?

Japan and the Soviet Union officially ended hostilities in 1956, and announced that upon the signing of a formal peace treaty, the island of Shikotan and the Habomai islets would be returned to Japan. The USSR later reneged on that promise.

In 1992, Russia made a secret proposal for negotiations on the incremental return of the four islands. The proposal was turned down by the Japanese. Meeting in Irkutsk, Russia, in March, 2001, Putin - then in his first term as Russian President - and Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori said that the 1956 declaration was in fact the valid basis for peace negotiations. At the time, two Japanese diplomats, along with politician Muneo Suzuki, negotiated a solution to the crisis on the basis of a "two plus alpha" formula. However, they were unable to gain the support of hardliners in the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

Suzuki has since become Prime Minister Abe's most important adviser on the Kuril Islands dispute. "If we want to find a solution, we must consider the outcome of the talks and make realistic proposals," Suzuki emphasized in September. Ex-diplomat Kazuhiko Togo, who led negotiations in 2001, struck a similar tone. "If Japan insists upon restored sovereignty over all four islands nothing will come of the negotiations," said Togo, who is currently a professor at Kyoto Sangyo University.

Karikatur Russland und Japan streiten über die Zugehörigkeit von Kurilen-Insel
The cartoon shows Putin putting Crimea on one side while Shinzo Abe places the Kurils on the otherImage: Sergey Elkin

Why is the Kuril Island dispute suddenly so important?

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sought better relations with Russia since he took office in 2012, in order to strengthen Japan's position in its rivalry with China. If that is to happen, the dispute over the Kuril Islands must finally come to an end. In March, 2012, Putin repeated his desire to end the dispute with Japan with a "Hikiwake" (the term for "draw" in judo), and move on to improving economic relations. Putin is looking to the development of the Russian Far East. But official negotiations were put on hold when Japan placed sanctions on Russia over its military intervention in Ukraine.

Unexpectedly, Russia resumed talks at the beginning of this year although sanctions remain in place. It is likely that Putin is meeting with Abe in an attempt to break the unity of those countries currently imposing sanctions on Russia. Though his motivation for striking a deal with Japan may wane in the wake of Donald Trump's victory in November's US presidential elections. It seems apparent that Trump is not inclined to continue President Barack Obama's harsh stance against Russia. 

Nevertheless, there will be time for Japan and Russia to come to an agreement as both Putin and Abe will remain in office for the time being. "As long as Abe and Putin are in office the chance for a peace agreement exists," says Russia's former assistant foreign secretary, Alexander Panov. He was involved in coming up with the "two plus alpha" formula while he served as Russian ambassador in Tokyo, in 2001. Yet Panov predicts that nothing will happen at the December summit: "Neither country is yet prepared to take the radical steps that are needed."