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Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi is hoping to inject fresh momentum into bilateral peace treaty negotiations with Russia by holding talks with her Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, on the sidelines of the upcoming meeting of the Group of Eight foreign ministers in Canada, sources said Saturday.

Kawaguchi plans to dispatch European Affairs Bureau chief Yasuo Saito and Russia Division head Toyohisa Uetsuki to Russia this week to arrange the agenda for the ministerial meeting, according to the sources.

If and when her talks with Ivanov materialize, Kawaguchi hopes to reiterate Japan’s position to simultaneously press forward on three fronts: conclusion of a peace treaty, economic cooperation and cooperation in the international arena, the sources said.

Discussions to defuse a decades-long territorial row over Russian-held islands off Hokkaido that are claimed by Japan have effectively been put on hold. The spate of scandals surrounding the Foreign Ministry’s “inappropriate” relationship with Diet lawmaker Muneo Suzuki is blamed for the delay. The dispute blocks the way for a formal peace treaty.

Suzuki, a House of Representatives member from Hokkaido, is accused of having meddled in the ministry’s policymaking, especially in matters concerning Russia. He left the Liberal Democratic Party in March and is now an independent.

Several ministry officials believed to have enjoyed close ties with Suzuki have been removed from their posts. This effectively brought talks with Moscow over the issue to a standstill, the sources said.

Kawaguchi and top ministry officials hope that the meeting with Ivanov will help pave the way for a bilateral summit between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 summit. They hope this will lead to negotiations on the prickly matter being restarted, the sources added.

Japan had wanted to discuss the conditions for the return of two of the areas — Shikotan Island and the Habomai islets — while at the same time solving the dispute over the sovereignty of the other two islands — Kunashiri and Etorofu. This idea was squelched, however, due to stiff resistance from the Russians.

Kazuhiko Togo, Japan’s former ambassador to the Netherlands, was sacked for his cozy ties with Suzuki. Togo was active in negotiations with Russia when he was head of the then European and Oceanian Affairs Bureau.

Another ministry official, Russian affairs expert Masaru Sato, was recently arrested for allegedly misusing funds earmarked for humanitarian assistance projects on the disputed islands. He had been transferred to a position far from Russian issues after his close links to Suzuki were criticized.

The Russian side has said that Japan’s Russia policy is “rudderless” after the departure of several key figures, the sources said.

Minister visits island

NEMURO, Hokkaido (Kyodo) Koji Omi, minister for Okinawa and Northern Territories affairs, left Nemuro port Saturday for a three-day visit to one of the disputed Russian-held islands northeast of Hokkaido under a visa-free exchange program.

Omi will accompany a group of 61 Japanese to Kunashiri Island. They will be the first group to visit the island this year under an agreement between Japan and Russia for reciprocal visits without visas.

Omi’s trip will mark the third time a serving Cabinet member has visited the islands, which Japan calls the Northern Territories. It is the first time for a Cabinet minister to visit the island after a series of scandals involving disgraced lawmaker Muneo Suzuki came to light.

Suzuki resigned from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in March following a series of scandals. He currently sits as an independent in the House of Representatives, but has recently come under mounting pressure to resign.

A Japanese government-funded facility located on Kunashiri is the focus of bid-rigging allegations involving an aide to Suzuki.

Omi is scheduled to stay two days at the House of Friendship, which serves as an accommodation and evacuation center. It has been dubbed “Muneo House” by locals, after Suzuki.

Omi is also expected to exchange views with Russian islanders over the territorial row between the two nations.

“I want to observe the site and discuss with Russian islanders without any preconceived ideas. After that, I will think about Japanese assistance for the region,” Omi said before he departed.

The disputed territory is made up of Kunashiri, Etorofu and Shikotan islands and the Habomai islets. They were seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II and are called the Southern Kurils in Russia.

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