Kremlin talks down Kuril deal hopes

Kremlin talks down Kuril deal hopes

Russia’s then president Dmitry Medvedev visited the Yuzhno-Kurilsk fish plant in Kunashir, the southernmost of the Kuril Islands, in 2010. Source: Kremlin

Russian foreign minister has warned Tokyo against expecting a quick breakthrough in the territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands ahead of President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Japan.

Sergey Lavrov said after meeting his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida that any deal would require a hard work. He argued that media coverage “in either a confrontational spirit or by encouraging excessive expectations of a quick progress” would not help.

The dispute over the Pacific islands, seized by the Red Army in the final days of the Second World War, has prevented the two countries from signing a peace treaty formally ending hostilities.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been pushing for progress over the islands that are called the Northern Territories in Japan.

Putin is due to visit Abe’s home region of Yamaguchi in southern Japan on December 15 with a bilateral economic summit in Tokyo set for December 16. The Kurils lie between Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula and Hokkaido.

Abe’s “new approach” appears to be based around the so-called “two islands plus alpha” template where Japan would take possession of the two smaller islands of Shikotan and Habomai and a peace treaty could be signed.

The “alpha” could be a common economic zone for the Kurils or eventual shared possession of the two largest islands, Kunashir and Etorofu. But few observers expect a breakthrough soon. “The subject is far too complicated,” said a former Japanese diplomat.

The sparsely inhabited string of islands lie in an area rich in natural resources. They serve as a strategic vantage point for Russia’s military. Japan protested in November after Moscow announced the deployment of new anti-ship missiles, similar those recently installed in the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, on the Kurils.

Abe’s has visited Russia twice during 2016, stirring hopes in Japan that Moscow was mulling a deal.

Lavrov said the Kremlin saw progress in economic ties as a key condition for success of talks on the Kurils.

“The more we act together, the more broadly we develop our ties in all spheres without exclusion searching for a balance of interests of Russia and Japan … the easier it will be for us to solve the most difficult problems,” the wily foreign minister said.

Russia has pledged to abide by a 1956 declaration where the Soviet Union said it was ready to hand two of the four southern Kurils back but Lavrov insisted that a peace treaty should be signed first.

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