To no one’s surprise, Japan and Russia were unable to reach agreement on a peace treaty during this week’s visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Even though Mr. Putin’s predecessor, Mr. Boris Yeltsin, agreed at a summit three years ago to conclude a treaty by the end of this year, the distance between the two countries has proven too wide to bridge. Progress has been made, however, and hopes for a treaty are not dead. Patience and continuing effort will yield an agreement, but it is unrealistic to expect one anytime soon.
The seeds of the dispute were sown in 1945, when Soviet troops seized four islands, known as the Northern Territories here and the Kuril Islands in Russia, just prior to the end of World War II. Although Japan and the Soviet Union restored diplomatic relations in 1956 — a move that ended the state of war that existed between them — a formal peace treaty has eluded them. The sticking point was the Northern Territories, the return of which Japan has demanded as a condition of any treaty.
There things remained until November 1997, when Mr. Yeltsin and then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto agreed at a summit in Krasnoyarsk to conclude a peace treaty by the end of 2000. That breakthrough created hopes that proved to be unsustainable. Mr. Yeltsin has since resigned, and Mr. Putin does not have the political will to push through a settlement in the face of powerful nationalist opposition at home to giving up territory. The recent accidents in Russia have only made the prospect of an agreement with Japan even more remote: Any deal, no matter how just, would look like a concession and yet more weakness on Mr. Putin’s part. That is unthinkable for a leader like Mr. Putin, who has made the strong-man image the touchstone of his political identity.
The failure to reach agreement before the deadline is unfortunate, but it is wrong to say that there has been no progress. In public statements, Mr. Putin conceded that there is a territorial problem, which is important. Previous Soviet and Russian governments had even denied that there was a territorial dispute. The president’s admission is a basis for future discussion, which both sides agreed to pursue.
That willingness to continue talks is another positive development. Mr. Putin’s invitation to Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori to visit Russia means that the pledge to continue talks is not an empty promise. Japanese leaders are no less bound by public opinion than are the occupants of the Kremlin. Progress on the peace treaty is necessary if any prime minister, and especially Mr. Mori, is to take up Mr. Putin’s offer to visit.
Fortunately for Mr. Mori, and whoever should succeed him, Mr. Putin is likely to remain in office for some time. That should facilitate talks. The Russian president’s health is good. And although he is new to office and something of an unknown quantity, he seems more consistent than Mr. Yeltsin. Japan will have a single, reliable interlocutor with whom it can build confidence and establish the relationship that is essential to any peace treaty. In this regard, Mr. Putin’s strongman image may be to Japan’s benefit. It makes rightwing accusations of selling out Russian interests much less plausible.
Ultimately, any peace treaty will depend on an agreement that serves both countries’ national interests. In short, there will be a tradeoff: economic assistance for territory. It is a tricky equation, since such aid is already part of the confidence-building process. The difficulties are compounded by the obstacles that all investors face in Russia. Their list of complaints is lengthy: corruption, organized crime, inadequate infrastructure and poor legal protections. During their meetings in Tokyo, Mr. Mori pressed Mr. Putin to remedy those problems, and Mr. Putin acknowledged the difficulties they present to foreign investors. But there is a dilemma, nevertheless. Investment is needed to help build good relations, but no investor can afford to throw money away.
Admitting that the 1997 Krasnoyarsk agreement was a “target” rather than a deadline is a bitter concession, no matter how realistic. When measured against the progress of the last 50 years, however, supporters of a peace agreement between Japan and Russia have reasons to take heart. The foundation of a deal is being laid. The two leaders signed 15 noncontroversial agreements on issues ranging from environmental protection to international cooperation in disposing of Russia’s nuclear stockpiles. Patience, creative diplomacy and considerable stamina will be required. None are beyond the capacity of this country’s negotiators and political leaders.
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