Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori on Saturday started a two-day visit to Russia for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin over a territorial row that has prevented the two nations from signing a peace treaty.

A government jet carrying Mori and his entourage left Tokyo’s Haneda airport in the morning and arrived in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, the venue for the Japan-Russia summit, later in the afternoon.

Accompanying Mori on the trip are three lawmakers from the ruling coalition, including Muneo Suzuki, a Russian expert and member of Mori’s Liberal Democratic Party. The other two are Yoshio Urushibara of the New Komeito party and Yuriko Koike of the New Conservative Party.

Mori will meet with Putin for three hours today to discuss the long-standing row over a string of Russian-held islands off Hokkaido.

Today’s meeting will be the first between Mori and Putin since the two countries failed to achieve the target set in a 1997 agreement in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, to resolve the row and conclude a peace pact by the end of 2000.

While a peace treaty still appears elusive, Japan hopes the upcoming summit will move the process forward by establishing a foundation for future negotiations.

The territorial dispute involves Japan’s claims to what it calls the Northern Territories — Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan islands and the Habomai group of islets — which were seized by Soviet troops at the end of World War II.

A major focus of the upcoming summit is the leaders’ discussion of a 1956 joint declaration which says the Soviet Union will return two of the four islands — Shikotan and the Habomais — after a peace treaty is signed.

The same declaration restored diplomatic ties between the two countries, but the Soviet Union rescinded the clause on the return of Shikotan Island and the Habomai islets in 1960.

On Sunday, Mori and Putin are expected to confirm in writing for the first time that the 1956 document remains in effect. The leaders are expected to state the view in an Irkutsk Declaration to be issued that day.

But even then, negotiations are expected to prove problematic, as the two governments appear to interpret the 1956 declaration differently.

Japan sees it as promising the return of the two specified islands, allowing negotiations to move on to the other two. But Russia wants to put an end to the dispute by returning only the specified islands, according to diplomatic sources.

Another goal for Japan in the summit is to set a new target date for the peace treaty process. Russia, however, has so far rejected that idea.

Japan believes a new target would give momentum to future negotiations. Although the target to sign a treaty by the end of 2000 passed without success, it led to frequent high-level contacts, including three meetings between Mori and Putin last year.

Peace treaty talks aside, Mori will pay a visit to a cemetery in the city of Shelehov, near Irkutsk, where some of his father’s ashes are buried. Putin is scheduled to accompany Mori on the trip.

A tomb was built there for Mori’s father, Shigeki, because as mayor of Neagari, Ishikawa Prefecture, he worked to improve ties with what was then the Soviet Union.

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