MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin on Thursday described the absence of a peace treaty between Japan and Russia as an “abnormal situation” and expressed his readiness to resolve the long-running dispute over a group of Russian-held islands off Hokkaido.
Putin also said his remarks last March ostensibly seeking a draw over the dispute meant finding a solution acceptable to both countries, visiting former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori told a news conference after meeting the Russian leader in Moscow.
The president made the comment when Mori, who arrived in Russia on Wednesday to lay the groundwork for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit here later this year, asked the Russian leader — a longtime judo enthusiast — what he had meant when he said he would seek “hikiwake,” a judo term for draw, to settle the dispute.
It referred to a “settlement without win or loss,” Putin was quoted as telling Mori.
Mori also handed Putin a personal letter from Abe and stressed to him that settling the island row needs the resolve of both nations’ leaders.
The visit by Mori, who is in Russia as Abe’s special envoy, is drawing major attention over whether it can set the tone for finally finding a resolution to the territorial dispute. Both Abe and Putin have expressed readiness to seek a “mutually acceptable solution.”
“I’m awaiting the Japanese prime minister’s visit,” Putin told Mori at the outset of their 70-minute meeting.
Abe’s trip is expected for April or May.
Putin also expressed hope for greater cooperation between the two countries, saying bilateral cooperation in the economic field has been successful.
“From now on, I hope to put cooperation in the agricultural field on the right track,” he added.
He also revealed plans to send a mission headed by his energy minister to Japan soon for meetings with business leaders, according to Mori.
The dispute over the ownership of the islands off Hokkaido — Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group — has prevented the two countries from concluding a peace treaty after World War II. They were seized by the Soviet Union at the end of the war and the Japanese islanders were later evicted.
Mori’s visit came amid some apprehension in the Japanese government because he said on a TV program in January that Tokyo has an option of settling the dispute through the return of three of the islands.
Mori’s stance is at odds with the government’s position that Tokyo is flexible about when, how and on what conditions the islands are returned as long as Moscow acknowledges Japanese ownership of all four.
Also at issue was whether Putin would confirm as still valid a 2001 statement, agreed on between Mori and Putin at the time, that confirmed the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration was legally valid, and whether the Russian leader would indicate readiness to inch toward Japan’s position.
At the news conference aftertheir meeting, Mori said he and Putin confirmed the importance of the statement, which Mori as prime minister signed in March 2001 with Putin in the Siberian city of Irkutsk. It defined the 1956 joint declaration as the starting point of negotiations for forging a peace pact. The declaration, which ended the state of war and restored diplomatic relations between the two countries, says two of the four islands — Shikotan and the Habomai islet group — will be handed over to Japan after a peace treaty is signed.
In the so-called Irkutsk Statement, the two leaders also reaffirmed their common position that on the basis of a separate bilateral document — the 1993 Tokyo Declaration — a peace treaty should be concluded by resolving the dispute over the ownership of all four islands.
During Thursday’s talks, Mori and Putin also discussed North Korea, which last week conducted its third nuclear test in defiance of warnings from the international community, with the Russian leader saying the test was totally unacceptable, according to Mori.
Among other issues, Putin expressed displeasure with the International Olympic Committee’s recent decision to drop wrestling from the 2020 Summer Games, expressing hope that Japan and Russia — whose athletes are medal contenders in the sport — will cooperate toward having the decision reversed.
During his stay in Moscow, Mori is slated to meet with Sergey Naryshkin, speaker of the lower house of the Russian Parliament, and give a speech at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations on Friday. He is due to return to Japan on Saturday.
Mori, 75, a member of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, served as prime minister from April 2000 to April 2001.