MOSCOW (Kyodo) Moscow has ruled out resolving the long-standing dispute with Japan over the sovereignty of islands off Hokkaido in the near term, a top official of the Russian Foreign Ministry said Wednesday.

“Settlement is impossible for now,” the official said, adding that enhancing bilateral relations through measures such as economic cooperation should come first.

The remarks were interpreted as suggesting the Russian government will shelve negotiations over the islands for the time being and instead encourage Japanese corporations to start businesses and invest in Russia.

The Russian official expressed the view after President Dmitry Medvedev in November visited Kunashiri Island, one of the four Russian-held islands claimed by Japan off Hokkaido, marking the first visit by a Moscow leader.

The official also said Medvedev has made clear that no breakthrough will be possible over the territorial issue without a change in the current situation, apparently referring to the president’s remarks on his Twitter website about his meeting with Prime Minister Naoto Kan in Japan in November.

Shortly after his talks with Kan on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit, Medvedev said in a Twitter message that he had told the prime minister that promoting economic cooperation benefits both countries more than discussing an issue that cannot be solved.

Kan protested Medvedev’s visit during the meeting.

The Russian official emphasized the importance of strengthening overall bilateral relations, saying such efforts will help Japan and Russia work toward settling the territory issue as a result.

“Our policy toward Japan has not changed, and we just hope to enhance ties with Japan,” the official said, while referring to stepped-up activities by Japanese businesses in the Russian market.

Tokyo and Moscow are at odds over the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan as well as the Habomai islet group. The territory was seized by the Soviet Union following Japan’s surrender in World War II on Aug. 15, 1945.

In October 1956, Japan and the Soviet Union signed a joint declaration to end wartime hostilities and restart diplomatic ties, in which the Soviets agreed to return Shikotan Island and the Habomai islets to Japan following the conclusion of a peace treaty.

The Russian official said that “good will” on the Soviet side was behind the agreement included in the declaration and that Russia finds no reason to return the islands as long as a peace treaty is not in place.

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