Sorry Sergey, you’re Shinzo now! US tells 20,000 Russian islanders from disputed Kurils that it considers them to be Japanese

6 Dec, 2020 12:46
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Russian citizens of the disputed Kuril Islands are, according to US officials, actually Japanese – a result of the US’ policy of insisting much of the archipelago, governed by Moscow since World War II, rightly belongs to Tokyo.

Japanese newspaper Hokkaido Shimbun reported on Friday that Russians born on the islands of Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashir and Iturup are, for the purposes of drawing up green cards, considered Japanese by the US immigration authorities. The islands are, however, governed by Moscow and their 20,000 residents include people of Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian and Tartar descent, as well as an indigenous Ainu population.

Russia’s sovereignty over the Kurils is contested by Japan, and the archipelago has been a historic flashpoint for tensions between the two countries. The islands changed hands in 1945, after being pledged to the Soviet Union in return for entering the Second World War and fighting against Imperial Japan, the main regional ally of Nazi Germany. The entire Japanese population was expelled shortly afterwards.

However, the US, which underwrote the Yalta Agreement that handed over the islands, and even helped equip the Soviet overtake, has since changed its policy. Washington supports Japan’s insistence that a number of contested islands are not actually part of the Kurils, and therefore were never rightfully Russian under the terms of the treaty. Russia rejects this narrative, arguing that it is a tactic to justify Japanese claims.

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The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs hit out at Washington’s decision in a statement on Sunday, asking “do you need more proof that the US is a revisionist power?” The spokesperson added that “In 1945, the Kuril Islands were transferred to the Soviet Union. But today the State Department is seeking to reopen the settlement of the Second World War and encouraging territorial revanchism.”

On paper at least, Russia and Japan are actually still at war, having never signed a formal peace treaty due to a failure to agree on the status of the Kurils.

Last year, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Tokyo that the presence of US troops and the East Asian country’s close military ties with Washington were a significant roadblock to better relations.

Moscow has, however, sought some compromises in the diplomatic spat, allowing Japanese citizens, including those descended from islanders, to visit the Kurils visa-free. Japanese vessels are also allowed to catch fish in Russian waters around the archipelago. But this has not always helped de-escalate tensions, and in 2006 a Japanese fisherman was shot dead in the conflict’s first fatality for 50 years.

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