A retired senior diplomat has urged Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government to accelerate negotiations on a territorial row with Russia, saying the “window of opportunity” to resolve the long-standing issue is only likely to remain open until “the end of this year.”
Kazuhiko Togo, who used to be in charge of talks over four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido, said Wednesday at a press event that it is “nearly criminal” that Japan has not taken any action since last March, when then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin expressed his readiness to finally settle the dispute.
“It is Japan which is asking very seriously to change the status quo,” Togo, a former director general of the Foreign Ministry’s European Affairs Bureau, said in Tokyo.
The dispute over the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan and the Habomai islet group, which were seized by Soviet forces at the end of World War II, has prevented the two countries from concluding a postwar peace treaty. Japan’s position is it wants all of the islands returned.
Togo said “it will not probably work” if Abe seeks the return of all four islands. He instead advocated what he described as a “two-plus-alpha” solution — the return of Shikotan and Habomai, with alpha referring to the status of Etorofu and Kunashiri, on which the two countries have so far found no agreement.
Arguing that Japan has continued to miss opportunities for a breakthrough in negotiations with Russia over the years, Togo said, “Abe has to put up with . . . a very small alpha. Will he have the guts? I don’t know. . . . If Japan fails to grasp this opportunity, then the answer will be zero.”
Although a summit is being arranged between Abe and Putin, who has returned as president, in late April, Togo said he does not expect “anything substantial” with regard to the dispute to come out of their meeting. “To the best of my knowledge, there is not enough preparation going on,” he said.
Under the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, Shikotan and the Habomai islets would be handed over to Japan after a peace treaty is signed. In 2001, Japan and Russia agreed on a statement that defined the declaration as the starting point for negotiations on forging the peace pact.
Tokyo takes the position that when, how and on what conditions the isles are returned is flexible, providing Russia acknowledges Japan’s ownership of all four islands.