KUNASHIRI ISLAND — Aleksei Teryukhin, 60, was impressed by the modern thoroughfares he saw on Okinawa Island in 2000 during a visa-free visit sponsored by the Japanese and Russian governments.
“Okinawa has plenty of well-paved roads, even though it is a small island like Kunashiri,” Teryukhin said through an interpreter. “The (Japanese) government seems to be giving Okinawa plenty of attention.”
After he came back to Kunashiri, Teryukhin wrote to Russian President Vladimir Putin, urging him to pave 250 km of roads on his island.
Teryukhin, a pensioner, said he received a letter from the Kremlin in return stating that it plans to pave 197 km of roads on Kunashiri by 2025. Teryukhin said he felt he had been snubbed.
For Teryukhin and other Russians who have lived on the islands since the Japanese inhabitants were evicted by Soviet troops starting with Japan’s World War II surrender, life on Kunashiri, Etorofu and Shikotan islands and the Habomai islets has not always been easy, but has occasionally been mitigated by the ever-expanding ties with their estranged Hokkaido neighbors.
Since Soviet troops seized the islands in 1945, the territories have been the center of a dispute that has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from signing a peace treaty to formally declare an end to wartime hostilities.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi hopes that when Putin visits Tokyo next year, bilateral negotiations toward effecting the islands’ return to Japanese sovereignty will find some progress, although there is little to indicate a breakthrough will occur.
Despite the standoff over sovereignty, however, exchanges between Japanese and the islanders have expanded rapidly over the past decade. The islands’ economies have meanwhile increasingly become tied to Hokkaido, which is just 3.3 km away at its closest point.
Many in Kunashiri’s Russian community complain about infrastructure shortcomings, including dirt roads, aging schools and power outages. But the South Kuril administrative district, which covers Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islets (Etorofu is under the Kuril district) lacks the financial means to remedy the situation, officials and local residents say.
“The district authority’s budget is in the red,” said Tatyana Yakimova, a South Kuril assemblywoman. “We receive subsidies from Sakhalin province in (the form of) loans and grants” to make up for the deficit.
Fisheries account for 85 percent of the South Kuril district’s tax revenues, meaning its finances are at the mercy of the yearly catch and seafood prices.
The district predicted 24 million rubles, or roughly 100 million yen, in tax revenues from the industry this year but got only 5.3 million rubles due to the year’s poor catch, Yakimova claimed.
Off the communist dole
Nobuo Arai, a professor at Hokkaido University’s Slavic Research Center, said that during the Soviet era, state-run firms in the district were responsible for building and maintaining the social infrastructure.
But after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, these firms were privatized, and the local government took over the infrastructure tasks, Arai said.
“But if the local government was financially unable to manage the infrastructure, the firms were not allowed to be privatized and had to remain under state control,” he said.
In the mid-1990s, those firms struggled along with the financially strapped Russian central government, he said.
Yuzhino-Kyrilsky Marine Products Kombinat, Kunashiri’s biggest marine products firm, is one of those companies.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, up to 1,300 people worked at the company, processing crabs, seaweed, salmon and other fisheries products, company officials said.
Now only 30 people are employed full time and about 80 others are hired during the busy season between July and September, they said.
Such hardships may explain why former Liberal Democratic Party member Muneo Suzuki, who pushed Tokyo to provide aid to the islands, is remembered favorably by islanders despite his tainted image in Japan.
The aid included construction of The Friendship House of Japanese and Russians, or “Muneo House” as it became known in Japan, a lodging on Kunashiri for visa-free visitors. The aid also included a small cargo boat and diesel generators to provide electricity.
“Mr. Suzuki did things the Russian government did not do for us,” said Valentin Smorchkov, head of the government-affiliated Japan- Kuril Center. “We know those were the product of Japanese taxpayer money.”
But the aid spigot turned into a trickle when Japan-funded aid programs came under scrutiny after Suzuki was found to have meddled in the bidding for the projects to favor supporters. Suzuki, who has lost his Diet seat, is now on trial for bribery in connection with various corruption scandals.
Today, the diesel generators on Kunashiri mainly sit idle due to lack of fuel. The aid flow has been substantially reduced — from 3.1 billion yen in 1999 to 43 million yen in 2003 — and Tokyo has shifted the focus of aid from construction projects to providing medical supplies and offering treatment to Russian islanders at hospitals in Japan.
Russia’s limited perks
Residents of the four islands have received certain privileges from Moscow since they settled in the territories.
Some of the Soviet occupiers remained on the islands. Other settlers came from various parts of the Soviet Union — even from west of Moscow — under government incentives to encourage settlement of the territories.
Today, local government officials on the islands are paid higher salaries than their mainland counterparts, and the islanders can receive pensions at a younger age.
According to a recent survey, the average monthly salary of workers in the South Kuril district was 8,264 rubles in January 2002, compared with 6,776 rubles in Sakhalin province.
But prices are higher on the islands because most daily goods have to be shipped from Sakhalin, and islanders say their perks are not enough to cover the high cost of living.
“I started receiving a pension when I turned 50, but I cannot live off that amount,” said Galina Davlyatova, 57, who also works as a cleaning woman at the district office.
The wealthiest citizens on Kunashiri and the other disputed islands in large part are fishermen who catch crab and sea urchin and sell them at Hanasaki port in Nemuro, eastern Hokkaido.
According to a report jointly compiled by the city of Nemuro and local business groups in 1999, the monthly income of Russian fishermen — some of them from the disputed islands — calling at Hanasaki port ranged from 140,000 yen to 600,000 yen — four to 20 times the level earned by average workers in the South Kuril district.
The report also estimated that the Russian fishermen contribute 1.9 billion yen a year to Nemuro’s economy. After the fishermen unload their hauls in Nemuro, they buy daily necessities, electric appliances and groceries at local stores.
A clerk at a grocery store near Hanasaki port said Russian fishermen account for more than half of the store’s revenues.
“Nemuro and the (Russian-held islands) are dependent on each other,” said Satoru Shinhama, a senior Nemuro official in charge of matters pertaining to the islands. “The economy and life (on the islands) are closely linked to Nemuro.”