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The peace-treaty talks between Japan and Russia are off to a fresh start because Boris Yeltsin suddenly resigned as Russian president at the end of last year. Yeltsin had agreed at a Russo-Japanese summit meeting in 1997 that the two nations should “strive” to sign a long-pending peace pact by the end of 2000.

Acting President and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is expected to win the presidential election scheduled for March 26. However, we should wait and see how the election actually comes out and where the new Russian government will go. A settlement of the territorial dispute demands strong leadership at the highest level of government.

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi must start from scratch, so to speak, by building a relationship of trust with Russia’s new leader. Then the Japanese government must continue patient talks with Moscow on the basis of the 1993 Tokyo Declaration, which calls for the conclusion of a peace treaty through resolution of the Northern Territories problem.

During a recent visit to Japan by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, the first since Putin took office, the two sides agreed to continue talks pursuant to the agreements reached at previous summits. Ivanov met with Prime Minister Obuchi and Foreign Minister Yohei Kono Feb. 10-11.

These summit agreements are, in chronological order, the Tokyo Declaration, the Krasnoyarsk agreement in 1997, and the Kawana accord and the Moscow Declaration in 1998. The most important of these is the Tokyo Declaration, which was signed by Yeltsin during his visit to Tokyo. The document says a peace treaty should be concluded at an early date by resolving the territorial dispute involving Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai islands, known in Japan as the Northern Territories.

At the Krasnoyarsk meeting, Yeltsin made a bold proposal to sign the pact by 2000 — the first time a deadline had been set for the treaty talks. The following year, Obuchi and Yeltsin issued the Moscow Declaration reiterating the 2000 deadline. It was the first time in 25 years that a Japanese prime minister had paid an official visit to Moscow.

These summit agreements make it clear that a territorial settlement and treaty signing are inseparable. At the Kawana meeting, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto proposed that the two nations agree in a peace treaty to set a final borderline between Etorofu and Urup islands (Urup is Russian territory), and that Russia maintain administrative control over the Northern Territories until they are formally returned to Japan.

Yeltsin rejected the Hashimoto plan and proposed instead that the two nations first sign a peace and friendship treaty stating their will to resolve the border problem and then hold talks to conclude a separate treaty setting a borderline. Since then Russo-Japanese talks have been at a standstill.

The Yeltsin plan, which would put off a settlement of the territorial problem, goes against the Tokyo Declaration, which calls for the signing of a peace treaty through the resolution of the islands dispute. The Russian government should respect the Tokyo Declaration, which was signed by Yeltsin. Otherwise the Japanese public, which pinned hopes on the document as a road map for the return of the islands, will become more distrustful of Russia.

The Russian government is even trying to scrap Yeltsin’s proposal to sign a peace treaty by 2000. Ivanov, replying to a questionnaire from Kyodo News prior to his Tokyo visit, warned against “holding the illusion that (the treaty) can be signed by a given deadline even at the expense of its content.” Thus he made it clear that realizing the Krasnoyarsk agreement is not realistic.

In a meeting with Kono, Ivanov said acting President Putin would carry on the Russo-Japanese talks along the lines of the Moscow Declaration and all other summit agreements. Since Putin came to power, however, the agreement on the 2000 deadline, the most important of summit promises, has shown signs of “hollowing out.”

Putin, who has aggressively pursued the war in Chechnya, won victory in December’s Lower House elections, atop a wave of feverish nationalism. However, NATO’s eastward expansion and its bombing of Yugoslavia have deepened Russia’s sense of isolation. The “national security concept” that Putin signed in January aims to revive a “great Russia” by bolstering its military power.

At the same time, the document sees territorial demands on Russia as major threats to its security. With the Chechen war likely to become prolonged, is Russia really willing to discuss a sovereignty issue that stirs its nationalistic sentiment?

In a meeting at the Institute for International Policy Studies in Tokyo in January, Alexander N. Panov, Russia’s ambassador to Japan, said Russia’s relations with Japan are now better than those with the United States and Europe thanks to three years of mutual efforts to improve ties, and that Japan and China are to Russia two of the most important nations in the world. He also said that the Russian leadership highly appreciates Japanese support for reforms in Russia.

Russia needs foreign economic assistance and investment in order to rebuild its economy. Stable and good relations with Japan are of strategic advantage to Russia. The basis for that must be the return the Northern Territories. It is the foundation on which to build the “strategic partnership” stated in the Moscow Declaration. It is time for the new leader in Moscow to make a strategic decision.

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