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The protracted Russian-Japanese dispute on the national affiliation of the South
The protracted Russian-Japanese dispute on the national affiliation of the South Kurile archipelago proves that mathematical equations cannot always be used for solving political problems.

On November 5, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov negotiated with his Japanese counterpart Hirofumi Nakasone in Tokyo. The talks merely highlighted both countries' desire to try and solve this territorial issue. Russia and Japan will not be able to sign a peace treaty to formally end World War II, unless they solve this territorial dispute.

Lavrov and Nakasone made optimistic statements at their concluding news conference in Tokyo that was preceded by Lavrov's visit to Hokkaido Island bordering on the South Kurile archipelago in connection with the 150th anniversary of opening the first Russian consulate in Hakodate and the establishment of a Russian center there.

"We will continue to negotiate the solution of the peace-treaty problem and will facilitate stronger bilateral ties, trust and mutual understanding between our peoples," Lavrov told a joint news conference on the results of his talks with Nakasone. He said this was the right way to solve the Russian-Japanese border-demarcation problem.

Nakasone advocated the kind of progress in the peace-treaty talks that would correspond to the level of Russian-Japanese relations in economic and other areas.

Moscow's stand on the issue is as follows. The South Kurile Islands were incorporated into the Soviet Union after World War II; and Russia, in turn, became the U.S.S.R.'s legal successor. Consequently, it is impossible to doubt Russian sovereignty over the islands, which was formalized in accordance with international law.

Nonetheless, Moscow is prepared to search for a mutually acceptable solution to the persisting border issue.

Russia and Japan have repeatedly referred to previous agreements including the 1956 joint declaration stating expressly that Japan would receive two islands, namely Shikotan and Habomai, if a bilateral peace treaty were signed.

This implies the archipelago's equal division. Moscow believes this would close the issue. However, Tokyo does not want to renounce its claims to the remaining two islands and has no intention of dividing four by two.

The Japanese side refers to the 1855 Shimoda commercial and border-demarcation treaty that drew the border between the islands of Etorofu and Uruppu, now part of Russia's Sakhalin Region. Everything north of this line was Russian and everything south Japanese, including the four disputed islands - Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai Rocks.

Under the San Francisco Peace Treaty, signed in September 1951 by Japan and 48 nations, members of the anti-Hitler coalition, Tokyo ceded all rights and claims to the entire Kurile archipelago and south Sakhalin. However, the Soviet delegation did not sign the document, calling it a separate agreement between the U.S. and Japanese governments.

In 1955, Tokyo took advantage of Moscow's refusal to sign the treaty and demanded the entire Kurile archipelago and south Sakhalin back. Subsequent two-year Soviet-Japanese talks made it possible to merge both sides' positions. Tokyo then limited its claims to Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashiri and Etorofu.

Japan believes that the 1956 declaration provides an interim, rather than final, solution to the territorial problem and will sign a bilateral peace treaty only if Russia cedes all four islands.

Lavrov told Japanese journalists prior to his latest visit to Japan that any issues should be settled on the basis of compromise, and that Japan was reluctant to divide the four disputed islands by two. Tokyo also believes that a compromise is essential; but the implications are unclear.

Program of socio-economic development for the Kurile Islands

Anyone flying over the South Kuriles can see houses damaged by the 1994 earthquake. The ruins appear gloomy and desolate. The island chain is in dire need of socio-economic development for the sake of local residents and for Russia's prestige.

The local desolation prompted Tokyo to think that Moscow was ready to cede the islands because it was not making improvements. In effect, failure to resolve insular socio-economic problems would slow down the solution of the bilateral territorial problem.

In June 2007, Lavrov visited the South Kurile Islands enroute to South Korea, reacting with dismay to official Japanese criticism of his move.

The Russian Government has now started implementing the draft federal target program on the socio-economic development of the Kurile Islands (Sakhalin Region) for 2007-2015. The national Economic Development Ministry predicts that the successful implementation of the program will swell the local population by 50% to 28,000-30,000 by 2015, and that industrial output will soar by another 50%.

There are plans to accomplish the following four inter-linked objectives for development. First of all, the local transport infrastructure, primarily airports, seaports and roads, will be expanded. It is intended to expand the regional road network and freight turnover by 100% through 2015 and to fully reconstruct all airports and seaports.

Second, electricity costs must be reduced. At present, one kilowatt of electricity costs 300% more than on Sakhalin Island. There are plans to build geothermal power plants that will reduce the cost of resources by 30-50% and will also expand their production by 30%.

Could Russia and Japan jointly develop the South Kuriles?

In 2007, Lavrov proposed that Russia and Japan jointly develop the archipelago and said Russian legislation provided favorable conditions for this. He said Moscow was ready to discuss ways of amending such legislation if Tokyo considered it insufficiently reliable for doing business in the Kuriles.

Japan did not react to this proposal in any way because of its implied recognition of Russia's right to the four disputed islands, which the Japanese regard as "illegally occupied". A Japanese diplomat said Tokyo would never agree to implement economic projects under Russian legislation as long as the territorial dispute remained unresolved.

Only one objective has been accomplished so far. In the early 1990s, Moscow opened a visa-free corridor to Japanese citizens wishing to visit the South Kurile Islands, while Tokyo allows Sakhalin residents to come to Japan.

In this way, the Japanese who do not have to apply for visas get the feeling that they are visiting their home territories.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.


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