YUZHNO-SAKHALINSK, Russia (Kyodo) Just over three months ago, President Dmitry Medvedev paid a brief visit to Kunashiri Island, becoming the first Kremlin leader to visit one of four isles off Hokkaido controlled by Moscow and long claimed by Japan.
Ahead of a meeting between Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and his Russian counterpart, at which the islands’ sovereignty is expected to be raised, Kyodo News in late January visited Kunashiri’s port of Furukamappu, known as Yuzhno-Kurilsk in Russia, where infrastructure development and a series of visits by ranking government officials appear to have strengthened Moscow’s control.
While locals once used to hope that their island’s sovereignty would revert back to Japan, their views have markedly changed during the past 20 years and many islanders now appear ready to turn their back on Tokyo.
In fact, when Medvedev set foot on the island in November, some viewed it almost as the arrival of their “savior.” Dmitry Sokov, a 45-year-old hotel manager, said many locals looked at his visit and thought: “The island has not been abandoned. If more key officials pay visits, our livelihoods will never suffer.”
Many residents fled to mainland Russia from Kunashiri amid the economic turmoil that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, or after a major 1994 earthquake that hit the region. At that time, it was Japan that sent humanitarian assistance to the island, and no substantial aid arrived from Russia.
This raised the hopes of locals that they might be eligible for some form of financial benefit if the island was placed under Japan’s control. In the late 1990s, one opinion poll showed a majority favored the territory’s return to Tokyo.
Nowadays, however, “more than 90 percent of the islanders are against it,” said a reporter from a local newspaper.
Valentina Sukhovatitsina, the director of a local history museum, is one of those who oppose the island’s return to Japan. “The islanders are not occupying other people’s land. With history having turned out to be like this, (the current situation) has to be accepted,” said Sukhovatitsina, 62.
The islanders’ views arguably changed as a result of the resurgence of Russia’s power and stepped up infrastructure development on Kunashiri during the last decade.
A series of projects were undertaken, including building an airport and harbor facilities. In addition, a new geothermal power station reduced power outages that were common on the island in the 1990s.
While some locals still complain of high prices and the lack of jobs and entertainment, an overwhelming number now say they want to continue living on the island because they feel safe from the terrorist strikes and instability other parts of Russia are experiencing.
But not all the islanders are happy with their lot. Vyacheslav Nodirov, a 48-year-old welder whose home Medvedev visited, said he told the president that he “wants to get off the island and go to a more cultured town.”
Nodirov is mulling a move because “the level of education is low and the environment for raising children is not good,” he said.
According to Nodirov, Medvedev asked him to remain on the island, saying, “Life (on Kunashiri) in the future will not be worse than in central Russia.”
Following the president’s visit, Nodirov said, “I was told life on the island would improve considerably, but I can’t believe it.
“Huge budget outlays were made just to build five apartment buildings, a pier and an airport,” he said. “A big chunk of the budget must have been embezzled.”
A newly built kindergarten Medvedev also visited was found to have numerous cracks in the walls due to faulty construction work, considerably delaying its opening.
Olga Ulyanova, the 45-year-old head of the kindergarten, said: “It was attributed to the use of low-quality construction materials. The same construction company built the pier and the runway for the airport. I wonder if they are all right.”
There are some locals, in fact, who suggest the island’s return to Japan would be no bad thing. A hotel employee who only wanted to be identified as Anastasia said, “Right now, the government is paying attention, but life on the island will not change drastically even in the future.”