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Russia ’92 isle-return offer snubbed

Kyodo

Russia in 1992 secretly proposed returning to Japan two of the four islands it holds off Hokkaido before the conclusion of a peace treaty and to negotiate the fate of the other two, but Tokyo rejected the offer, a retired high-ranking diplomat has revealed.

Kazuhiko Togo, who was in charge of negotiations over the four islands through the end of 1991 as head of the Foreign Ministry’s Soviet Union division, said in a recent interview that Moscow offered to return Shikotan Island and the Habomai islet group before a peace accord was inked to formally end World War II, and to then discuss how best to handle the sovereignty of Etorofu and Kunashiri.

All four isles were seized by Soviet forces at the end of the war.

According to Togo, the proposal was made verbally by then-Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev to his Japanese counterpart, Michio Watanabe, during talks in March 1992 in Tokyo. Watanabe, foreign minister from 1991 to 1993, died from cancer in 1995 at age 72.

Togo was not present during the 1992 talks between Kozyrev and Watanabe, but said he learned of the proposal through a diplomatic document.

He described the move as a “maximum concession” on Russia’s part, as a 1956 bilateral accord stipulates that Shikotan and the Habomai islets will be returned to Japan after the two sides sign a peace treaty. But Japan rejected the proposal because it did not guarantee the return of all four islands, said Togo.

The remarks by Togo, who also headed the Foreign Ministry’s European and Oceanic Affairs Bureau and Treaties Bureau, could influence planned talks between Tokyo and Moscow aimed at breaking the long-standing territorial impasse.

Under the 1992 proposal, Shikotan and Habomai would have been returned to Japanese control after Tokyo and Moscow had discussed the timing and the process of their handover. The two countries would then have debated how best to handle the administration of Kunashiri and Etorofu, and would have concluded a bilateral peace accord.

Togo considers the move a major concession by Moscow, given its declining political might in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s breakup the year before, and, that it shows Russia apparently attached “importance on ties with an economic power like Japan.”

But the dispute has worn on, and bilateral ties further soured in November 2010 when then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev paid an unprecedented visit to Kunashiri. Russia’s current president, Vladimir Putin, has since expressed a desire to resolve the issue.