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Former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori revealed Sunday that Japan and Russia agreed during working-level talks in early April to set up two frameworks regarding the return of Russian-held islands at the center of a decades-old bilateral dispute.

One of the two frameworks will cover conditions for returning the Habomai group of islets and Shikotan Island, while the other will deal with the fate of the other two islands, Kunashiri and Etorofu, Mori said on a TV Asahi program.

The agreement was reached during talks in Moscow between Japan’s Kazuhiko Togo, then head of the Foreign Ministry’s European Affairs Bureau, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov, following talks between Mori and Russian President Vladmir Putin in Irkutsk in late March, Mori said.

Mori proposed to Putin that they conduct discussions on returning both the Habomais and Shikotan as well as Kunashiri and Etorofu on a parallel basis, the former prime minister said.

Diplomatic sources in Tokyo involved in the bilateral negotiations have confirmed Mori’s statement.

The framework deal suggests Russia has made a large compromise, with the agreement being in line with the Japanese side’s idea to have the return of the Habomais and Shikotan Island confirmed first, sources close to the negotiations said.

The disputed islands have been held by Russia since the end of World War II, and the territorial row has prevented the two countries from signing a peace treaty.

Meanwhile, there are views within Japan’s Foreign Ministry that the two sides should sign a midterm treaty legally binding them to confirm the return of the Habomais and Shikotan Island before signing a peace treaty and continuing negotiations on the remaining two islands, the sources said.

Although the two countries have agreed on setting up the framework, it remains unclear whether Russia will ultimately respond positively to negotiations on the return of the Habomais and Shikotan Island, the sources said.

Furthermore, it is unclear whether the agreements will continue to stay in effect with new Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and new Japanese Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka both expressing distrust toward having the Habomais and Shikotan Island returned first, the sources said.

Tanaka has expressed her intention to review Japan’s negotiating policy thus far. Japan and Russia have confirmed the validity of a 1956 Japan-Soviet Union joint declaration that states the Habomais and Shikotan Island will be handed over to Japan after a peace treaty is signed.

The Russian side, however, maintains that there are no references to Kunashiri and Etorofu in the declaration, and that Russia believes that if the Habomais and Shikotan are returned, then there will be no other outstanding issues.

During his March 25 talks with Putin in Irkutsk, Mori argued that the two countries have confirmed that a peace treaty should be signed after resolving the ownership of all the Russian-held islands, not just the Habomais and Shikotan, according to sources involved in the negotiations. Mori cited the 1993 Tokyo declaration signed by then Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, which lists the names of all the disputed islands and affirms that a sovereignty issue still exists between the two countries.

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