• Kyodo

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Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed Sunday to continue talks on a peace treaty based on past agreements, including a 1956 document calling for the conditional return to Japan of some Russian-held islands.

In their joint statement issued after the meeting here, the two leaders confirmed the validity of the 1956 joint declaration, for the first time in writing, calling it as a “basic legal document” that serves as the “starting point” of the peace treaty process.

The two sides, however, remain apart over how to interpret the wording of the document. They also failed to set any specific target for concluding a peace treaty, simply calling for the signing of such a treaty as early as possible.

Speaking at a joint news conference, Putin said the 1956 declaration, which restored bilateral ties after World War II, is “one of the agreements that forms the basis of our bilateral relationship.”

But he said more work is needed to reach a common understanding of the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration, noting that Japan and Russia do not yet have a common interpretation of Article 9 of the agreement, which concerns the return to Japan of the Habomai group of islets and Shikotan Island off Hokkaido.

Japan had been keen to confirm the validity of the 1956 document in writing, saying it would help move forward negotiations on a decades-old territorial dispute that has prevented the two countries from signing the peace pact.

The islands, along with Kunashiri and Etorofu, were seized by the former Soviet Union at the end of the war. In the 1956 declaration, Moscow promised to return Shikotan and the Habomai group after the two countries sign a peace treaty.

In their latest joint statement, Mori and Putin agreed to boost negotiations to achieve a “solution mutually acceptable to both sides,” and that “a specific direction” for peace treaty negotiations should be decided at an early date.

“It is extremely important for the two countries to confirm the continuance of negotiations on a peace treaty, as well as efforts to seek a final solution to important bilateral issues,” Putin said at the outset of the second half of talks with Mori.

Sunday’s meeting, held in the Siberian city of Irkutsuk, marked the first summit between the leaders since the two countries failed to achieve their goal of signing the peace pact by the end of 2000.

The two countries agreed in 1997 in Krasnoyarsk, also in Siberia, to strive to resolve the row over the islands and conclude the peace treaty by the end of 2000, but that target passed without success.

The 1956 declaration states that Shikotan and the Habomai group will be handed over to Japan after a peace treaty is signed. The Soviet Union rescinded the clause in 1960, after Japan revised its security treaty with the United States.

But even with Sunday’s confirmation of the 1956 declaration, a rocky path lies ahead for negotiations since the two governments appear to interpret it differently.

Japan sees the 1956 pact 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.

Putin’s comments at Sunday’s news conference suggest that a difference in interpreting the 1956 pact has not been bridged by the two.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov told Japanese officials last November that the Soviet Union intended in the 1956 agreement to put an end to territorial disputes with Japan by returning Shikotan and the Habomai group, according to Japanese government officials.

Japan had hoped for setting a new target date for the peace treaty process, believing that it would give momentum to future negotiations.

Although the two countries failed to achieve the end-of-2000 goal, it led to frequent high-level contacts, including five meetings between Mori and Putin in 2000.

Sunday’s summit was held amid doubts over whether Mori, who is expected to resign in the near future, can advance Japan’s goals in the talks with Putin.

Mori has said he will move up the presidential election for his ruling Liberal Democratic Party from September to as early as April. The comments have widely been taken as a de facto resignation announcement.

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