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Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi may make his first official visit to Moscow by the end of this year to rekindle negotiations on a long-standing territorial dispute between Japan and Russia.

The government is considering having Koizumi make the trip late this year or early next year for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, although official diplomatic discussions on the meeting have not yet begun, government sources said Monday. Koizumi’s predecessor, Yoshiro Mori, visited the east Siberian city of Irkutsk in late March just a month before stepping down as prime minister, but his visit was termed an “extra event,” demoting its status from that of a regular official visit, the sources said.

Since Putin made an official visit to Tokyo in early September, it is now Japan’s turn to respond in kind, according to diplomatic custom, the sources said.

The sources also said Japan will seek to have Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov visit Tokyo this autumn to prepare for the summit between Koizumi and Putin in Moscow. While Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka has not yet visited Moscow, her predecessor, Yohei Kono, visited in January.

“Russia is closely watching how the results of the upcoming Upper House election will affect the domestic political standing of Prime Minister Koizumi before determining how to implement its policy toward Japan under the Koizumi government,” one government source said.

“Therefore, the two countries will start discussing a possible visit to Moscow by Prime Minister Koizumi after the election,” the source added. The Upper House vote is widely expected to be held on July 29.

Koizumi’s visit to Moscow is apparently aimed at reshaping Japan’s policy on the territorial dispute with Russia in the wake of deep policy confusion that surfaced before he took office in late April.

The territorial dispute is over islands off northeastern Hokkaido that Soviet troops occupied immediately after Japan’s defeat in World War II — Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group.

In the 1956 joint declaration that normalized bilateral diplomatic ties, Moscow promised to return Shikotan and the Habomai islet group — the two smaller islands — after the signing of a peace treaty to formally end World War II hostilities. But the two nations never signed a treaty, and Japan has stuck to a policy of seeking the return of all of the islands before burying the hatchet with Russia.

During Mori’s one year tenure as prime minister, however, influential lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party — most notably Muneo Suzuki, a former state minister in charge of Hokkaido development — made remarks interpreted as favoring the return of only Shikotan and the Habomai group.

This caused waves in the government’s policy toward Russia, and also led to deep divisions and confusion within the Foreign Ministry, even to the point of affecting personnel changes. The formal appointment of Kazuhiko Togo, a former director general of the ministry’s European affairs bureau who has close ties to Suzuki, as ambassador to the Netherlands was delayed due to strong objections from Foreign Minister Tanaka.

Mori himself disclosed after stepping down as prime minister that he had proposed to Putin in Irkutsk to negotiate for Kunashiri and Etorofu separately from Shikotan and the Habomai group, a revelation that immediately drew harsh criticism from Tanaka.

Both Koizumi and Tanaka seem opposed to departing from Japan’s long-held policy of seeking the return of all the disputed islands, and it is widely believed Russia wants to sign a peace treaty with Japan by agreeing to return Shikotan and the Habomai group alone.

In a key policy speech in early May, Koizumi said, “Based on the consistent position that we should conclude a peace treaty by resolving the issue of the attribution of the four islands, I intend to earnestly carry forward the negotiations.”

In November 1997, then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and then President Boris Yeltsin agreed at an informal summit in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, to strive to resolve the territorial row and sign a peace treaty by the end of 2000. But they never did.

Aside from a possible visit to Moscow by Koizumi late this year or early next year, Koizumi and Putin are expected to hold talks twice in other countries — during an annual summit of the Group of Eight major countries in Genoa, Italy, late next month and during an annual summit of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Shanghai in October.

Bilateral defense talks

Defense Agency chief Gen Nakatani and Russian Ambassador to Japan Alexander Panov agreed Monday to step up bilateral defense exchanges, with Panov asking Nakatani to visit Moscow before the end of the year, agency officials said.

Panov also told Nakatani that the Russian Navy plans to have some of its vessels travel to Japan in the fall, as part of efforts to build trust between soldiers from both nations, the officials said.

Top officials from the Russian Air Force are also preparing to visit Japan in the future, Panov told Nakatani.

Nakatani was also quoted as telling Panov that frank exchanges of views between the U.S. and Russian leaders will contribute to global peace and stability.

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