VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — If you ever chance to fly in the wintertime to the disputed Northern Territories — a cluster of volcanic islets claimed by both Russia and Japan, and known as the southern Kuril Islands to Russians — be prepared to be stranded.
Any time from October to May, your pilot will dump his passengers and load up a mob of departing citizens and hastily fly off while he has the chance. It might be a while before you see a plane again. Poor weather could keep him from returning for weeks.
During your stay in the city of Kurilsk, the lights might black out for 16 hours a day. Even when blizzards howl outside, the town frequently has no hot or cold water, no heat and no telephone service. On some days the Iturup Hotel’s menu consists solely of hot dogs and boiled barley — breakfast, lunch and dinner. Upon hearing there is an outsider in town, locals may drop by the hotel to share a bottle of vodka with you.
You watch the snow fall outside, toast the brotherhood of man and consider the question: So this is the place that keeps Japan and Russia from signing a treaty to end World War II? Nothing personal, but who needs it?
Such a question overlooks the power of nationalism in two countries where the right wing nurses a sense of historical grievance. And it misses the reason Russian President Vladimir Putin was unwilling to return the islands during a visit to Tokyo earlier this week, even at the cost of billions of dollars in potential Japanese investment in the destitute Russian Far East.
While Putin was in Tokyo, Japanese rightwing groups paraded sound trucks in front of the Foreign Ministry, blaring, “Give the islands back!” Meanwhile, in a Russia that has fallen into poverty and disorder, nationalist parties and regional politicians score points with the electorate by opposing any compromise on the islands. After watching their nation shrink drastically with the collapse of the Soviet Union, many proclaim that nothing more can be ceded. Not even a handful of rocky islands that Russia can’t really care for.
The islands are part of a chain that stretches 1,200 km between the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. The southern portion of the chain — four islands, primarily, that the Soviet Union seized in the waning days of World War II — are the point of contention.
The islands are one of the planet’s unlikeliest places for an irreconcilable political dispute. Barren, but possessing a stark beauty, they are nobody’s ancestral homeland, except for long-vanquished indigenous Ainu. They are not bloodied by ethnic feuds — the Soviet Union kicked out the few thousand Japanese inhabitants in 1945.
Neither Russia nor Japan can assert an ancient claim to the islands. Both nations extended their territory to the Sea of Okhotsk, which flanks the islands, in the 17th century (Japan annexed Hokkaido in 1600; Russia built a fort at what is now the city of Okhotsk in 1647). Russian Cossacks first settled the Kurils. Japan seized the southern islands in 1855 and in 1875 took possession of the entire chain, only to lose it again to the Soviet Union.
The town of Kurilsk, which I visited for a week in 1998, resembles a typical provincial Russian village, with two-story wooden apartment buildings and stores located in steel cargo containers. Stores are half-empty and prices are twice those on the mainland. The port can’t handle even moderately sized freighters; they have to offload onto smaller vessels bobbing on the wind-torn seas.
In some parts of the world, the fiercest patriots are those who live in disputed territories. Not here. Many people would rather live under a Japanese administration. Others just want to make sure that if they have to leave, somebody provides them with apartments and jobs in Vladivostok, the Russian Far East’s largest city. Of course there are still Russian patriots, but even they are bitter that the Kremlin, 10,000 km away, can’t provide them with a decent standard of living. It doesn’t help, from Moscow’s perspective, that Tokyo tempts islanders with a glimpse of all that could be theirs by providing free trips to the land of paved roads, 24-hour electricity and curbside vending machines.
If Japan had its way, Russia would hand over the islands by December. Putin would prefer to mumble some words about cooperation and suddenly find Japanese billions flowing into the Russian Far East.
But, smarting over the fact that his nation has dwindled into a second-rate power, he is unlikely to hand over the islands anytime soon. They may be just rocks in the sea, but they could come back to clobber any Russian president who lets them go.
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