MOSCOW – The top diplomats of Japan and Russia said Friday there was a ways to go before their countries can resolve a long-standing dispute over the Russian-held islands off Hokkaido.
In Moscow, Russia’s Sergei Lavrov said “significant differences” remained between the two nations’ positions, despite several previous rounds of negotiations.
“The task is not easy, it’s clear it will only be solved by long, painstaking and creative work,” Lavrov told journalists following his meeting with Foreign Minister Taro Kono.
The territorial dispute centers on four islands between the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean that were seized by the Soviet army in the last days of World War II.
“Solving a problem that remains unresolved more than 70 years on from the end of the war is not easy,” Kono said at the joint news conference.
“It cannot be said that as a result of today’s talks we were able to overcome these differences.”
Tokyo has refused to recognize Moscow’s sovereignty over the isles, preventing the two countries from signing a peace treaty to formally end wartime hostilities.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Vladimir Putin have made resolving the dispute a priority — meeting 25 times since 2013 in an effort to build cooperation. But both face domestic opposition to any compromise and a meeting in Moscow in January fell short of an agreement.
A meeting between their foreign and defense ministers will take place in Tokyo at the end of the month, Lavrov said Friday.
Moscow has said negotiations should be based on a 1956 Soviet-Japanese declaration that calls for the signing of a peace accord before any move to hand over the two smaller territories, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group, to Japan. The two larger isles are Etorofu and Kunashiri. The Russian names are different.
But giving away even uninhabited islands would be poorly received in Russia, where World War II is hugely symbolic and postwar gains in territory are seen as nonnegotiable.
Moscow in recent months has taken further steps to consolidate its hold on the isles, which are home to some 20,000 people. In December, for example, Russia said it built four new military barracks there, prompting an angry response from Tokyo. In February, it said it had laid fiber-optic cables to provide homes and businesses there with high-speed internet access.