ROAR: “Japan will never reclaim the Southern Kurils”

Vladimir Kremlev for RT
As Russia and Japan are at loggerheads again over the four Southern Kuril Islands, it is the local population that is suffering the most during the dispute.

After Japan’s parliament recently passed amendments to a bill on their Northern Territories – naming the four Southern Kurils “the historical territory of Japan” – Moscow called the move “inappropriate and unacceptable” and the Russian parliament declared the peace treaty talks with Japan “pointless” unless Tokyo cancels the legislation.

The Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, has asked President Dmitry Medvedev to consider declaring a moratorium on visa-free exchange between Russians living on the islands and the Japanese, which started in 1992. Since then almost nine thousand Japanese have visited the islands, and some seven thousand Russians living on the Kurils have traveled to Japan.

However, the head of Kuril district Nikolay Razumishkin told a Japanese delegation on July 8 that the island of Iturup has suspended visa-free travel because of the bill adopted by Japan’s parliament. It will not resume “until the Japanese government annuls this bill,” he was quoted by Izvestiya as saying.

“You should not place here direction signs in the Japanese language without inscriptions in Russian,” Razumishkin added. Members of the Japanese delegation wanted to place the signs to make their stay at the island more comfortable.

Razumishkin also greeted the Japanese delegation by saying, “Welcome to Iturup, the historical Russian land,” according to Kommersant.

Ordinary Russian people living at the islands want the visa-free regulations to remain. As for the Japanese, they visit the Southern Kurils not just for economic reasons – many of their ancestors buried there long ago.

Japan considers these islands, which separate the Sea of Okhotsk from the North Pacific Ocean, its own Northern Territories. Tokyo cites the treaty about trade and frontiers between the two countries signed in 1855. Japan says the islands “were occupied” by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II.

Russia says the Southern Kuril Islands (Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai) were transferred to the USSR at the end of WWII on legal grounds. Since 1945, Moscow and Tokyo have not signed a formal peace treaty because of this territorial dispute.

The importance of the Southern Kurils is not limited to geopolitics either. Taking into account the continental shelf and the 200-mile economic zone, the territory of the islands amounts to 196,000 square kilometers of rich natural resources, Izvestiya noted. The region is rich with minerals, timber, not to mention fish in the surrounding waters.

Some Russian analysts believe that the tough answer made by Russian parliamentarians to their Japanese colleagues will not have any consequences, because causing tensions in relations with Japan costs too much. The same is true about Japan’s legislation, the analysts say. Japan’s parliament has already adopted 17 resolutions of this kind, repeating again and again that the islands are Japan’s territory.

The new legislation passed by Japan’s parliament is “a propaganda move”, believes Vladimir Alpatov, deputy director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He told the RIA Novosti news agency that Russia “in any event… will not hand these islands over to Japan in the foreseeable future.”

“The position [of the Japanese side] is absolutely rigid, and does not allow for any compromise – this is yet another gesture that I think has a major propaganda factor,” Alpatov said. He added that the bill passed by the parliament in Tokyo was “an internal issue for Japan, and had no standing in international law.”

Mr. Alpatov believes that the conflict will remain frozen for many years. “The Japanese now see us as a weak state, but not so weak that Japan can dictate its conditions,” he added. “Clearly, there can be no military conflict, and Russia has no intention of handing over the islands through peaceful means.”

Some Russian observers have often explained that the tough decisions taken by the Japanese on this matter in previous years were caused mainly by “internal political factors in Tokyo.” Both the opposition and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party use the issue of the northern territories to get political dividends.

Nevertheless, people living in the Southern Kurils are in favor of continuing visa-free travel, chairman of the South Kuril district legislative assembly Igor Koval told RIA Novosti.

Russians enjoy these travels, he added, stressing that strong contacts in culture, sports, and preservation of nature have been established with the Japanese over the 17 years of the visa-free exchange.

The decisions on suspending visa-free travel were made by federal organs of power, Koval said. “We only implement these decisions, but we would like the government to pay heed to the opinion of the local population and not to take extreme and radical decisions that could affect, first of all, ordinary people,” he said.

For the people living in the Southern Kurils, visa-free travel affords a good opportunity to leave the islands for a holiday. Many people cannot afford to spend their holidays in big Russian cities, because the tickets are too expensive, Koval stressed.

It appears that the authorities in the Southern Kurils do not want Moscow to take any decisions on this matter. Kommersant wrote that Kunashir and Shikotan could also suspend visa-free travel with Japan.

So far these islands have not made any moves in this direction, but Russian politicians have taken the issue very seriously, which makes it difficult to continue any discussions between the two countries about the islands and negotiations on the peace treaty.

“We do not like very much this bill adopted in Japan,” Koval said. “This cancels everything that was achieved during the 17 years of exchange between our two countries.”

Head of the Federation Council Sergey Mironov in his turn told Japanese daily newspaper Asahi that “the islands will never be Japan’s territory.”

On July 9, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso during their meeting in L’Aquila on the sidelines of the G8 summit that the Japanese parliament’s decision on the Kuril Islands “did not foster an atmosphere of trust.” He did, however, express his readiness to continue dialogue with Tokyo on this issue.

Sergey Borisov, RT