Staff writer

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi starts a historic trip to Moscow Wednesday, but substantial progress in resolving a long-standing bilateral territorial row may not be achieved because of President Boris Yeltsin’s poor health and economic turmoil in his country.

The main focus of Obuchi’s three-day trip is Yeltsin’s response to a proposal made in April by then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto to settle the dispute over the Russian-held islands off Hokkaido.

Yeltsin is not likely to fully accept the proposal but will probably offer an alternative solution, a senior Foreign Ministry official said.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told his Japanese counterpart, Minoru Tanba, in a high-level meeting in late October, that Russia is taking into account the importance of bilateral ties in considering its response.

Although details of Hashimoto’s proposal have not been disclosed, it is believed to involve the drawing of a demarcation line north of the disputed islands while giving Moscow temporary administrative rights over the area. The proposal was made at an informal summit between Hashimoto and Yeltsin in April in Kawana, Shizuoka Prefecture.

Russian officials repeatedly said Yeltsin would respond to the proposal during Obuchi’s Moscow visit, but some reportedly said Russia cannot make a final decision on the issue while in the midst of an economic crisis.

Toshihiko Ueno, a senior research fellow at the Center for Russian Studies under the Japan Institute of International Affairs, said Obuchi’s visit is ill-timed due to Yeltsin’s political leadership weakened by the turmoil and poor health.

Another ministry official said Russia does not want to ruin its friendly ties with Japan by preventing progress in resolving the dispute, but it cannot make a response that will further destabilize the Yeltsin administration. “The Russian government, therefore, is in a quite difficult situation” in dealing with the islands issue, the official said.

The content of Yeltsin’s reply will not be made public, and further negotiations between the two countries are planned, according to ministry officials.

According to a Russian news report, Yeltsin may propose transforming the disputed islands into a special region for joint economic activities under the continued control of Moscow.

The joint activities were initially proposed by the Russian side at a meeting of the two countries’ foreign ministers in November 1996.

Russia has since then made repeated calls for joint economic activities, but the Japanese side has been reluctant to accept, fearing this would reinforce Russia’s de facto governance of the islands.

Obuchi’s trip is historically significant because it will be the first official visit to Russia by a Japanese prime minister since Kakuei Tanaka went in 1973.

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