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Medvedev’s visit just show of muscle

Kunashiri trip seen as rebuttal to DPJ stance, Russian poll ploy

Kyodo News

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit Monday to Kunashiri Island, one of the Russian-held islands claimed by Japan, has some Japanese analysts concerned that territorial talks between the two are likely to stall for a significant period.

“The difference between the stances of Japan and Russia is becoming pronounced, so the territorial talks are likely to encounter difficulty,” said Toshihiko Ueno, a Russia expert at Sophia University in Tokyo. “Russia may continue to argue that there is no significant problem about the status quo unless Japan advances proposals such as joint development of the disputed territories.”

“Japan’s contention that its Northern Territories (Russian-held islands) are held illegally by Russia is perceived by the Russians to have gained more traction under the government led by the Democratic Party of Japan, so Russia apparently is insisting on its sovereignty over the islands, to stress that it is not going to change its interpretation of World War II,” Ueno added.

The islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan and the Habomai islets were seized by the Soviet Union around the end of World War II. Tokyo claims the islands are being occupied illegally because the Soviet Union took them between Aug. 28 and Sept. 5, 1945, after Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15.

Medvedev is the first Moscow leader to set foot on any of the islands off Hokkaido.

Ueno says Medvedev’s visit to Kunashiri indicates Russia favors the 1956 declaration issued by Japan and the Soviet Union, stating that the Habomais and Shikotan would be handed over to Japan after the two countries sign a peace treaty, fully normalizing their diplomatic relations.

Such a stance by Russia would mean a step backward from the 1993 Tokyo declaration, in which the two countries said they would resolve the territorial issue concerning all of the islands claimed by Japan.

Analysts also say the Russian president’s latest move may be a gesture for domestic consumption.

“The Russian president’s visit was designed to ease growing discontent among the residents of the (islands), which remain underdeveloped, by sending a signal that Moscow has no intentions of changing its national boundary,” says Sophia University’s Ueno.

Nobuo Arai, a professor with the Slavic Research Center of Hokkaido University, says Russia is not faced with any pressing need to put its foot down about the ownership of Kunashiri and Etorofu islands.

“With his eye on the 2012 presidential election, President Medvedev may be indicating that he is not going to abandon economic backwaters such as Kunashiri Island,” he said.

Japan should stay calm while monitoring the situation, he added.