The Russian prime minister’s surprise visit to the Northern Territories and subsequent Russian hard position on the territorial issue have triggered a series of reactions in Japan, which in turn have hardened the Russian position and thereby spoiled Japan-Russia relations.

Some observers might regard this series of actions and reactions between Japan and Russia as acts in a political Kabuki play aimed mainly at catering to domestic public sentiments. In Russia, such sentiments have had a nationalistic edge, while Japan has tended to focus on self-criticism of its “maladroit” diplomacy.

There are indeed some elements of a Kabuki play in the latest developments of this Japan-Russia controversy. Both countries are, for different political reasons, under the spell of frustrated public opinion due to international economic uncertainties, widening social gaps and domestic difficulties. Therefore, it is quite natural for authorities of both countries to try to demonstrate their toughness rather than their flexibility in dealing with foreign affairs — to partially canalize domestic frustration to the outer world.

Under these circumstances, it is all the more important that the two countries resist the path of political abuses and reactions that are likely to cause long-term damage to Japan-Russia relations. Indeed, one cannot ignore the long-term implication of the political tension between the two countries and of underlying factors that may not only cast a shadow on Japan-Russia ties but may also oblige the international community to reconsider its fundamental stance toward Russia.

Reported Russian military steps or such intentions with regard to the Northern Territories as well as the latest political moves that have practically ignored Japanese reactions seem to imply that the Russians want to seal the long-term diplomatic issue by means of tough semi-military or politico-economic measures and to pile up “established facts” that Japan will have to swallow.

This implies that, regardless of any Japanese countermeasures, such a Russian attitude is in itself bound to leave in the minds of the Japanese festering wounds in relation to Russia. It would be, so to speak, the equivalent of once more reopening and enlarging the historical scar left by the Soviet Union, namely the bad image created by Stalinism and authoritarian policies from which the Japanese public has not yet fully recovered. In other words, the Russian attitude with regard to the Northern Territories is a touchstone of Russian sincerity of departure from authoritarianism and commitment to democracy and rules of law.

One must remember that it was only through the democratization of the Russian political system and the departure from authoritarian rule that the territorial issue ceased to be an “issue of the past” and was officially put on the agenda of topics to be discussed and resolved between the two countries via peaceful measures based on law and justice.

The latest Russian actions over the Northern Territories, combined with the treatment of journalism and the somewhat opaque legal procedures, seem to reveal that there is much left to be desired in the Russian process of realizing a society based on democracy, social justice and human rights.

One might recall that during the period of Japan-Russia conflicts at the beginning of the 20th century, several Japanese groups tried, in their respective fashion, to join forces with those Russians and peoples in Finland, Poland and other neighbors of Russia to protest against authoritarian czarism and to obtain international recognition of Japan’s efforts for political and economic modernization. In many peoples’ eyes, at the turn of the last century, Japan represented a new force for modernity and freedom, while Russia was viewed as an old, authoritarian political entity.

Viewed in historical context, the policy that Japan should adopt vis-a-vis a hardline Russia should not be such as to accuse Russia violently of unfriendly acts toward Japan; it should instead associate itself with enlightened democratic forces in Russia. The policy also should appeal to the international community for the need to pull Russia onto the right track of democratization and rule by law, reminding people of the real implications of the trend in Russian politics that reflects on Russian dealings with Japan on the territorial issue.

In this context, we should recall that the Russian government’s membership in the Group of Eight developed nations and Russian participation in the Asia-Pacific forum of dialogue is based on the assumption that Russia has taken off its authoritarian coat and become a truly democratic nation observing the principle of law and justice and the spirit of free enterprise. If this assumption is betrayed, we may have to reconsider the wisdom of letting Russian authorities fully participate in such dialogues.

There is, however, a more pressing matter that the international community in East Asia and the Pacific must take into account concerning recent developments in Russian internal and external politics: Russia is in danger of becoming an element of concern or a potential source of instability in East Asia.

Nationalism-oriented and authoritarianism-tilted Russian politics is likely to discourage movement in China toward democracy and may even encourage continuation of the dictatorial regime in North Korea. In any event, the latest political developments in Russia make people wonder once again whether Russia can be a real politico-economic partner to Japan, Europe, the United States and other like-minded countries in Asia and the Pacific.

The Russian stance and actions with regard to the Northern Territories is not, in essence, a bilateral issue between Japan and Russia; it is a litmus test of the Russian image and position as recognized by the international community.

Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, is president of the Japan Foundation. He has served as Japanese ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Vietnam (1994-95), South Korea (1997-99) and France (1999-2002).

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