First of two parts

Staff writer

The government is relieved that Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s visit will occur despite the delay of a week, but major progress on bilateral efforts to conclude a peace treaty may not be achieved at an informal summit with Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto because of the recent political turmoil in Moscow.

The rescheduling of Yeltsin’s visit will not have a negative impact on bilateral relations, which have been noticeably improving, a Foreign Ministry official said.

Yeltsin’s desire to visit Japan despite the delay stems from his strong friendship with Hashimoto that was forged at their “no necktie” summit last November in Krasnoyarsk, eastern Siberia, the official added.

Yeltsin initially planned to visit Japan from April 11 to 13 for an informal summit in the seaside resort of Kawana, Shizuoka Prefecture, but the summit was rescheduled for April 18 and 19 because of political turmoil in Moscow.

Yeltsin abruptly dismissed his entire Cabinet late last month and nominated Sergei Kiriyenko, a former fuel and energy minister, as the new prime minister.

However, Kiriyenko has not yet been approved by the lower house of the legislature, the State Duma, due to strong opposition from the Communists and their allies, who dominate the chamber.

This weekend’s informal Hashimoto-Yeltsin summit is considered significant now that Japan and Russia have started to improve relations and are attempting to conclude a peace treaty, said Hiroshi Kimura, a professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies. “If Yeltsin had visited Japan as initially planned and without the political turmoil, I think he would have been willing to move a half step or full step beyond agreements made in Krasnoyarsk,” Kimura said.

But the political turmoil in Russia has cast a shadow over Yeltsin’s leadership and thus there are not high expectations for major progress at the summit, Kimura said. Because Yeltsin miscalculated the political situation, his leadership has been weakened as he encounters opposition from the lower house, Kimura noted, adding that Yeltsin will be preoccupied with his country’s political situation during his visit to Japan.

Hashimoto and Yeltsin made a breakthrough in bilateral relations in Krasnoyarsk by agreeing to boost efforts to conclude a peace treaty based on the 1993 Tokyo Declaration by the end of 2000.

Tokyo and Moscow have yet to sign a treaty due to their territorial dispute over Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets, which were seized from Japan by Soviet troops shortly after the end of World War II.

In the 1993 joint declaration, Yeltsin and then Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa agreed to promote talks based on the principles of “law and justice” to resolve the dispute in an effort to conclude a peace treaty.

Hashimoto and Yeltsin also agreed on the “Hashimoto-Yeltsin Plan” of economic cooperation initiatives — to be implemented by 2000 — in six priority areas.

The areas are investment promotion, integration of the Russian economy into the international economic system, more support for Russian reforms, training of Russian business executives and government officials, more dialogue in the energy field and cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Foreign Ministry officials said the main aim of the upcoming summit is to further strengthen the two leaders’ personal relations, because building such confidence is essential to improve relations toward signing a treaty.

The two will review progress on their agreement in Krasnoyarsk and exchange views on future high-level exchanges, including Hashimoto’s tentative official visit to Russia in the fall, the officials said. This would be the first such trip by a Japanese prime minister since 1973, when Kakuei Tanaka went.

Toshihiko Ueno, senior research fellow at the Center for Russian Studies of the Japan Institute of International Affairs, said Tokyo considers the exchanges between the two leaders to strengthen personal ties a last resort to resolve the territorial dispute and to conclude a treaty.

“The Japanese government believes it has already done everything possible to resolve the issue, but significant achievement has not been made. The only alternative remaining is to establish intimate personal relations between the leaders,” Ueno said.

Ueno initially thought Yeltsin might want to establish a borderline between the two countries in the bilateral discussions for the sake of reaching a treaty by the end of 2000.

But Ueno now thinks that because of Yeltsin’s strained relations with the lower house, he will not be able to take such a bold initiative when he visits Japan.

Foreign policy issues are not currently a source of conflict between Yeltsin and the lower house, but Japan-Russia relations may become one later if the legislature is asked to approve any initiatives reached between the two leaders, Ueno said.

The two countries started discussing a peace accord at a Russo-Japanese treaty-signing commission meeting under the authority of Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi and Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, when Obuchi visited Moscow in February.

The joint commission gathering was followed by a vice-ministerial meeting to make concrete the leaders’ agreement reached in Tokyo last month.

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