MOSCOW – Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dampened expectations of a breakthrough in a dispute with Japan over four islands off Hokkaido that’s prevented the signing of a World War II peace accord, saying the two countries “still have significant differences.”
The government in Tokyo must recognize Russian sovereignty over the islands as part of the outcome of the war, before progress can be made on a peace treaty, Lavrov told reporters Monday after talks in Moscow with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono. “This is our basic position and without a step in this direction it is very difficult to count on any movement forward on other questions,” he said.
It’s “unacceptable” for Russia that the islands are described as the Northern Territories in Japan’s laws and “we asked a number of questions about how our Japanese colleagues plan to move to overcome this particular problem,” Lavrov said. Even so, Russia has “sufficient readiness and patience” to negotiate a settlement for a peace treaty, he said.
The apparent hardening in Russia’s tone came after the Foreign Ministry in Moscow last week summoned the Japanese ambassador to protest recent comments by his government. The ministry accused Japanese officials of creating tension around the issue and distorting a 1956 offer by the Soviet Union to resolve the dispute by handing back two of the islands seized by its forces near the end of the war. Russia also criticized the description of 2019 as a “turning point” in the talks.
The two sides had a “frank exchange” of views during the Moscow talks, Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Takeshi Osuga told reporters after the meeting. Still, he stressed that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have a “strong determination” to bring an end to the decades-old territorial dispute.
Putin and Abe will discuss issues related to a peace treaty at talks in Moscow on Jan. 22, the Kremlin said in a statement Monday. This will be their 25th meeting since 2012. The two leaders agreed in Singapore in November to accelerate efforts to resolve the dispute, using the 1956 declaration as the basis for negotiations. Abe said then that the issue “will be solved by Putin and me, and not left for the next generation.”
Lavrov said it was “outrageous” that an adviser to Abe from his Liberal Democratic Party had stated that the U.S. should be interested in Russia and Japan reaching a peace agreement in order to strengthen deterrence against China. “We said this today with complete frankness” at the meeting with Kono, Lavrov said.
Kono said at the start of the talks that Japan expects Putin to visit the country in June. Unusually, the two ministers didn’t hold a joint press conference after their meeting. Lavrov told reporters at his briefing that this was at the request of the Japanese side.
The Soviet Union seized the islands in 1945, expelling all 17,000 Japanese residents. Japan’s official position is that the islands — home to rich fishing grounds — are an inherent part of its territory and are under illegal occupation. Russia insists it owns them.
Kono meanwhile said Monday he wants to make 2019 a “historic year” as he met with his Russian counterpart to inject fresh momentum into talks toward concluding a postwar peace treaty amid a decades-long territorial dispute.
“I’d like to have an intensive discussion on a peace treaty,” Kono said at the outset of a meeting with Russian Lavrov in Moscow.
“With an eye to making the year 2019 a fruitful and historic one, my hope is to work with Foreign Minister Lavrov to proceed with our work,” Kono said.
Lavrov, for his part, expressed his desire to elevate bilateral relations to a “higher level” but he also urged Tokyo to fulfill a promise between Russian President Putin and Prime Minister Abe to carry out talks without “distorting past agreements.”
The meeting was the first since Kono and Lavrov were tapped by their leaders in December to oversee the peace treaty talks.
They were tasked with identifying and discussing each side’s concerns and laying the groundwork for a planned summit next week between Abe and Putin in Russia.
Abe and Putin agreed during a summit in November to step up talks based on a 1956 joint declaration. The document mentions the transfer of two of the four disputed islands off Hokkaido — Shikotan and the Habomai islet group — to Japan by the Soviet Union following the conclusion of a peace treaty.
The November agreement to negotiate on the basis of the 1956 document has led to the view that Japan will focus on the transfer of the two Russian-held islands first, despite its conventional policy of seeking to resolve the status of all four islands.
Abe has made it a priority to settle diplomatic issues outstanding since the end of World War II and the conclusion of a peace treaty with Russia by resolving the standoff over the islands is one of them.
Abe, who has held 24 summit talks with Putin, is believed to be seeking a broad agreement in June when Putin is expected to visit Japan for a summit of the Group of 20 advanced and emerging economies in Osaka.
Still, Japan and Russia remain far apart over the islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia.
Japan has maintained that the four islands, also including Etorofu and Kunashiri, have been illegally occupied by Russia, which, as the Soviet Union seized them following Tokyo’s 1945 surrender in World War II.
Moscow has urged Tokyo to recognize the outcome of the war, including Russian sovereignty over the islands.
Ahead of the Kono-Lavrov meeting, Japanese government officials trod carefully so as not to negatively influence ongoing negotiations.
But Russia has been stepping up its rhetoric, accusing Japan of escalating tensions and misleading the public in both countries.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov summoned Japanese Ambassador Toyohisa Kozuki on Wednesday and protested recent remarks by Abe and other Japanese government officials over the disputed islands.
Abe has said Russian residents of the islands need to understand that their territorial status will change and that their lives will improve by living alongside Japanese people.