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Japan considers option of seeking return of Russian-held islands in two stages

JIJI

The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is examining the option of concluding a peace treaty with Russia upon Moscow’s agreement to return two of the four disputed islands northeast off Hokkaido, government sources said Sunday.

Abe hopes to resolve the long-standing sovereignty issue involving the Russian-controlled islands, also called the Northern Territories, in a flexible manner without sticking to the conventional stance of realizing the return of all of them at once, the sources said.

The prime minister is scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Peru on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in November and hold a bilateral summit in Nagato, Yamaguchi Prefecture, in December.

According to the sources, Tokyo is considering concluding a peace treaty with Moscow to formally end World War II hostilities between the two countries by striking a deal stipulating the return of the Habomai group of islets and Shikotan Island.

As for the larger Etorofu and Kunashiri islands, the Abe government will propose tentative joint administration and offer Japan’s cooperation for the economic promotion and development. Talks on their return to Japan will be held later.

The government also aims to facilitate Japanese nationals’ visa-free visits to the islands.

Japan has sought the return of the four islands, occupied by Soviet troops in the closing days of World War II, together, based on demands from former residents of the islands and part of the conservative bloc.

But talks over the islands have made little headway, with Russia insisting that they became its territory as a result of the war.

To break the deadlock, Abe has found it necessary to take “a novel approach,” the sources said.

The sources also said prospects for an agreement on the territorial issue have risen, pointing out that hit by resources price falls and Western economic sanctions over the Ukraine issue, Russia now calls on Japan to step up economic cooperation.

Furthermore, Abe and Putin have fostered relations of mutual trust and a “political vacuum” created by presidential election campaigns in the United States gives Japan a chance to achieve a deal with Russia, they noted.

But critics warn of a possible backlash from the Japanese public against the vague handling of Etorofu and Kunashiri, which make up 93 percent of the total area of the four islands.

In addition, optimism cannot be warranted that Russia will discuss the two islands’ return after concluding a peace treaty.

“You can’t expect at all Russia to hand over militarized Etorofu, in particular,” said an aide to Abe.