The groundwork for continuing peace treaty negotiations between Japan and Russia was laid during last week’s visit here by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Mr. Ivanov renewed Moscow’s commitment to signing a long-pending peace pact in talks with Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and Foreign Minister Yohei Kono. The message of the Ivanov visit is that the new Russian government headed by Prime Minister and acting President Vladimir Putin is now ready to talk with Tokyo.

However, the prospects for a settlement of the dispute over Japan’s Northern Territories, the only remaining roadblock to the signing of a peace treaty, remain uncertain at best. With no meaningful progress made on this issue during Mr. Ivanov’s visit, the goal of signing a peace pact by the end of this year — a nonbinding deadline set during the presidency of Mr. Boris Yeltsin — hangs in the balance.

The Japanese government needs to step up talks with the Putin regime and improve Russo-Japanese relations on the basis of previous agreements, particularly the 1997 summit accord in Krasnoyarsk that said the two nations will “strive” to sign a peace treaty by the end of 2000. That accord was committed to writing in the Moscow Declaration during Mr. Obuchi’s visit to Russia in November 1998. Another key agreement is the Tokyo Declaration of 1993, which calls for the conclusion of a peace treaty through the resolution of the territorial problem based on the “principles of law and justice.”

These achievements — the results of decades of patient effort on both sides to settle the sovereignty issue — provide the basis for continuing treaty talks. It is only natural, therefore, that the new Russian government has expressed a willingness to respect them. But that has to be taken with a grain of salt because moves apparently aimed at taking the teeth out of past agreements appear to be afoot in Moscow.

Foreign Minister Ivanov, replying in writing to questions from Kyodo News prior to his visit, brushed aside as an “illusion” the view that a deadline should be set for the signing of a post-World War II peace treaty. His remark is a de facto denial of the 1997 summit agreement. Although he made no such remark during talks with Japanese leaders, there is no question that Moscow wants to put off a territorial settlement, or put it on the back burner.

It seems likely that Russia, while maintaining a facade of respect for previous accords, may well try to compromise them in future negotiations. Whether that will actually happen depends largely on how the new regime in Moscow handles relations with Japan. But it also depends as much on Tokyo’s diplomatic efforts to convince the Russians of the vital importance of solid Russo-Japanese ties.

Mr. Putin, who is believed certain to win the presidential election in March, is an unknown factor in the Tokyo- Moscow equation. He was an obscure politician nationally until he became the prime minister last summer. Little is known about his political stance or his policies. Nor is it clear what he thinks of relations with Japan. All this makes it essential for this nation to step up diplomatic moves toward the new regime.

Russia now faces a host of urgent domestic and foreign policy problems, including ending the war in Chechnya, mending ties with the United States and Europe, and rebuilding its battered economy. But the Russians would do well to remember that improving ties with Japan is no less important a priority. Japan and Russia normalized relations under a joint communique signed in 1956 during the Soviet era. But the territorial row prevented the two nations from signing a peace treaty that would formally end the state of belligerency.

Settling the dispute — which involves three islands and a group of islets east of Hokkaido — is therefore an essential precondition for a peace treaty. There can be no overall improvement in bilateral relations until this issue is resolved. An early settlement is needed, not only to build more stable relations between the two nations, but also to promote peace and stability in Asia and the rest of the world.

However, given the deep discord over the islands, treaty prospects are grim. But Japan should not easily give up the 2000 target, which has symbolic significance in this final year of the 20th century. Both Tokyo and Moscow must work out a new formula to give a big push to the faltering treaty talks. There are, to be sure, formidable obstacles that must be cleared before a mutually acceptable deal can be struck. Without removing these difficulties, both nations cannot establish a genuinely better relationship than that of the past 55 years.

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