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Talk at the Balalaika restaurant in Tokyo’s Kanda district these evenings, as at the 27 other restaurants specializing in Russian cuisine in the Japanese capital, is focused on Vladimir Putin.

In any democracy, which Russia has been tentatively since 1991, the first duty of the president is to get elected. Putin, 48, who has been prime minister and is now acting president, seems to have satisfied the most important requirement for victory in the March 26 Russian presidential election. He is the handpicked successor of former President Boris Yeltsin, the favorite of the Yeltsin coterie known as “the Family,” and the darling of an increasingly active — some even say independent — press.

So Putin’s election seems assured. Then what? Does the former KGB officer have a Japan policy? Will he show the same enthusiasm for solving the Northern Islands issue and signing a peace treaty with Japan that Yeltsin displayed, albeit perhaps superficially?

The Foreign Ministry seems only marginally better informed than local cafe society on these points. Officials in the Russian section, including European Bureau Chief Kazuhiko Togo, did not try to hide their surprise at the timing of Yeltsin’s resignation on New Year’s Eve.

A high-ranking ministry official was quoted as saying that Putin and Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi met last September at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in New Zealand and Putin told Obuchi he would follow all agreements that Yeltsin and former Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin had made with Japan.

An agreement reached by Yeltsin and then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, in November 1997 committed the two nations to signing a peace treaty by the end of 2000.

During talks at the Kawana Resort in Ito, Shizuoka Prefecture in April 1998, Hashimoto handed Yeltsin a set of proposals:

* that a boundary line be drawn north of the Northern Territories — Etorofu, Kunashiri, the Shikotan islands and the Habomai islets

* that Moscow observe Japan’s residual sovereignty over the territories

* that Tokyo recognize and allow Russia’s effective rule over the territories

Russia balked at the specificity of terms on sovereignty and the proposal died when Yeltsin and Obuchi met in November 1998, although a Yeltsin visit this spring was anticipated.

Now Yeltsin is on the sidelines. There has been no real change since Soviet troops seized the islands just weeks after Japan’s 1945 surrender to the Allies. The two countries never signed a postwar peace treaty, largely because of the Northern Territories dispute.

Although a fence-mending and get-acquainted visit by Putin to Tokyo later this year cannot be ruled out, it is likely that Chechnya, the economy and other matters closer to home will keep him occupied. More likely, according to Tokyo diplomatic and table talk, is a private visit here by a rested Yeltsin, in a private capacity, following the tradition of his predecessor, former Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev. A year after becoming the first Russian leader since the war to visit Japan, Gorbachev returned privately in April, 1992.

Although not of celebrity status, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov is due in Tokyo Feb. 9 as part of a visit to Vietnam, North Korea and Japan. Ivanov feels no urgency about the Northern Territories issue but wants to caution Japan about participating with the United States in a theater missile-defense system.

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