Putin: Kuril Islands may become unifying element, help Moscow & Tokyo finally sign peace treaty

Russia's Kuril Islands, long disputed by Japan, may become a unifying element, Russian President Vladimir Putin said during his visit to Japan, noting that joint economic activities there could help the two countries finally agree on a peace treaty.

If we take the right steps in the direction of the plan proposed by the Prime Minister [Abe], and he proposed creating a separate structure regulating economic activities on the islands, striking a legal intergovernmental agreement [and] working out a mechanism for interaction, [we can], on this basis, generate the conditions that would allow us to finally solve the problem of the peace treaty,” Putin told the news conference following talks with Japan’s prime minister on Friday.

These islands, instead of a bone of contention between Russia and Japan, can, on the contrary, become something uniting [the two countries],” the Russian leader said.

The problem revolves around four Islands that are part of the Kuril archipelago stretching from Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, to Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula. Russia received the archipelago after World War II under the 1945 Potsdam Declaration, but Japan still claims them as its own. The issue has prevented the two nations from ever signing a formal peace treaty, leaving them technically in a state of ceasefire for the 70 years since World War II.

While President Putin said ownership of the four disputed islands is not subject to discussion, he stressed that it’s time for both countries to realize they will benefit from reaching a final settlement regarding them.

We spoke with the prime minister yesterday. I read these very touching letters from the former [Japanese] inhabitants of the Southern Kurils. In our opinion, it is necessary to stop this historic ping-pong regarding these territories. It is necessary, finally, to understand that the fundamental interests of both Japan and Russia require a final settlement,” he said.

Putin had said earlier that Russia is looking forward to setting up joint economic activities in the islands’ economic zone, which may include fishing, tourism, medicine, and culture. On Friday, he stressed that the main task of any cooperation between the two states should be reaching a peace agreement, and Moscow sees establishing joint economic activities on the islands as a step in that direction.

If someone thinks that we are interested in merely promoting economic ties, and the peace treaty is being put off – they are wrong. In my opinion, signing the peace treaty is the most important issue, because it will create the conditions for long-term cooperation in the historical perspective,” the Russian president said.

Prime Minister Abe, who has repeatedly pledged to resolve the decades-old conflict, also expressed confidence that a special economic regime for the disputed Kuril Islands would help resolve the peace treaty problem.

We’ve agreed with the Russian president to create a special economic regime for conducting special business activities on [the disputed] islands,” he said at the joint press-conference on Friday, adding that “the special economic regime will be aimed at providing a background for resolving the [peace treaty] problem, [it] will be a very important step for solving the peace treaty issue in the future.”

Abe also noted that Moscow and Tokyo are set to begin immediate negotiations on granting Japanese citizens free access to the graves of their relatives on the islands.

We agreed that former residents could freely visit the places where they had previously lived and buried their ancestors. We agreed, on humanitarian grounds, to immediately begin negotiations on how to provide this access. This way, we can, at least in part, meet the wishes of the former inhabitants of the islands,” Abe said. Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov stressed earlier that the Japanese side had no objections to working on the Kurils within the framework of Russian law.