During a recent meeting in Moscow, former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and Russian President Boris Yeltsin reaffirmed a 1997 Russo-Japanese agreement that the two nations will do their utmost to sign a long-pending peace treaty by 2000. Mr. Hashimoto, who enjoys a close personal relationship with the Russian president, seems to have taken some of the sting out of the stalled territorial talks on the Northern Territories.

Barring untoward developments, the Russian leader is now expected to visit Tokyo this autumn. But the territorial talks are likely to face difficulties because of political instability in Moscow. Russia is slated for lower house elections late this year and a presidential poll next summer. Moreover, a majority of Russians are believed to oppose the handing over of the disputed islands.

This makes it all the more significant that the two leaders again confirmed a mutual desire to settle the territorial dispute and conclude a peace treaty by the end of this century. Toward this goal, the government must continue steady efforts at every opportunity, including during the Moscow visit by Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura scheduled for late May and the June summit of industrialized nations in Cologne, Germany.

Mr. Hashimoto’s term in office did a good job of improving Tokyo-Moscow relations. He developed personal ties with Mr. Yeltsin, and those ties have not faded: The men still spoke on a first-name basis at their latest reunion. An advocate of “Eurasian diplomacy,” Mr. Hashimoto stressed three principles — trust, mutual benefit and the long-term perspective — in his diplomatic dealings with Moscow. On that basis, he aimed for a two-way territorial settlement that would benefit both Japan and Russia.

That mutualism underscored the agreement to sign a peace treaty by 2000, reached at the summit in Krasnoyarsk, eastern Siberia, in November 1997. There, Mr. Yeltsin, who had long insisted that future generations work out a solution to the islands dispute, agreed to end the technical state of war between the two nations during his current term of office, which ends next year. This was hailed here as a major political decision.

At the April 1998 summit in Kawana, Shizuoka Prefecture, it was Mr. Hashimoto’s turn to make a bold decision. He proposed drawing a border just north of the disputed islands. The idea was to confirm Japan’s residual sovereignty over those islands while allowing the Russians to maintain administrative control over them pending a final settlement.

At the same time Mr. Hashimoto made a major concession: Japan would not demand the immediate handover of Habomai and Shikotan, following the signing of a peace treaty. That was a setback from the 1956 joint declaration that made the signing of a treaty conditional on the prompt reversion of those islands. With Mr. Yeltsin reportedly inclined toward Mr. Hashimoto’s overture, Tokyo and Moscow appeared closer to a breakthrough than ever before.

After Kawana, however, things turned worse in both nations. Mr. Hashimoto’s Liberal Democratic Party took a beating in the July Upper House election, forcing him to resign. In Russia, an economic crisis erupted, and Mr. Yeltsin, his health failing, faced a leadership crisis as well. Thus, neither Tokyo nor Moscow was in a position to take a bold step toward resolving the dispute.

Meeting Japan’s new prime minister, Mr. Keizo Obuchi, in November in Moscow, Mr. Yeltsin virtually rejected the Kawana proposal. Instead, the president proposed that a “peace and friendship treaty” be signed by 2000 with the islands issue placed on the shelf for the time being. Russian officials repeated that position during their visits here earlier this year. Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov indicated that it was impossible to resolve the dispute by 2000. At a meeting of ranking officials in early April the two sides only agreed to disagree.

The Russian attempt to sign a peace pact separate from a territorial settlement clearly runs counter to the Tokyo declaration, which states that the treaty will be concluded after the claims to all the disputed islands are settled. To the Japanese who insist on a package deal, this dual approach is unacceptable. We hope the government will make patient efforts to work out a solution along the lines of the Kawana proposal. The continuing disagreement over the Northern Territories and the concomitant absence of a peace treaty remain a potentially destabilizing factor not only in the bilateral relation, but also in regional and international affairs, including the situation in the Korean Peninsula.

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