The problem of the Kuril Islands as a sticking point between Russia and Japan

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The problem of territorial sovereignty over the Southern Kuril Islands or the territorial dispute between Russia and Japan has not been resolved since the end of World War II and remains as it is until today, writes Alex Ivanov, correspondent in Moscow.

The issue of island ownership remains at the center of bilateral relations between Moscow and Tokyo, although the Russian side is actively trying to “dissolve” this issue and find a replacement mainly through economic projects. Nonetheless, Tokyo is not giving up on trying to present the Kuril Islands problem as the main issue on the bilateral agenda.

After the war, all of the Kuril Islands were incorporated into the USSR, but ownership of the Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai Islands group is disputed by Japan, which considers them to be an occupied part of the country. . Although the 4 islands themselves represent a rather small area, the total area of ​​the disputed territory, including the 200-mile economic zone, is approximately 200,000 square kilometers.

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Russia claims that its sovereignty over the Southern Kuril Islands is absolutely legal and is not subject to doubt or discussion, and states that it does not recognize the very fact of the existence of a territorial dispute with Japan . The problem of ownership of the southern Kuril Islands is the main obstacle to the full settlement of Russian-Japanese relations and the signing of a peace treaty after World War II. In addition, the amendments to the Russian Constitution approved last year put an end to the Kuril issue, since the Basic Law prohibits the transfer of Russian territories.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently once again broke the 65-year dispute with Japan over the status of the Southern Kurils. During the main event of the Eastern Economic Forum in early September 2021, he indicated that Moscow would no longer decide the fate of the islands bilaterally and questioned the strength of the 1956 declaration that defines relations between the Soviet Union and Japan. So Putin has lifted the threats that would have arisen if the islands were transferred, experts say, but that could deprive the Far East of Japanese investment.

In the 1956 declaration, the Soviet Union accepted the transfer of the Habomai Islands and the Shikotan Islands to Japan on the condition that the actual transfer of these islands to Japan take place after the conclusion of a peace treaty between the Union. of the Soviet Socialist Republics and Japan.

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Under the conditions of the Cold War, the unpredictable and obviously weak Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wanted to encourage Japan to adopt neutral state status by transferring the two islands and concluding the peace treaty. However, later the Japanese side refused to sign a peace treaty under pressure from the United States, which threatened that if Japan withdrew its claims to the islands of Kunashir and Iturup, the Ryukyu archipelago with the island of ‘Okinawa, which was then under the United States’ administration on the basis of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, would not be returned to Japan.

President Putin, speaking at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, announced that entrepreneurs in the Kuril Islands will be exempt from taxes on profits, property and land for ten years, as well as cut premiums insurance; customs privileges are also granted.

Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said the special tax regime proposed by Vladimir Putin in the Kuril Islands should not violate the laws of both countries.

“On the basis of the position indicated, we wish to continue to conduct a constructive dialogue with Russia in order to create the conditions conducive to the signing of a peace treaty,” added Motegi.

Japan said Moscow’s plans to create a special economic zone in the Kuril Islands, announced at the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok by Russian President Vladimir Putin, contradicted Tokyo’s position. According to the secretary general of the Japanese government, Katsunobu Kato, calls for Japanese and foreign companies to participate in the economic development of the territory do not respect the “spirit of the agreement” reached by the leaders of the two states on joint economic activities on the islands of Kunashir, Iturup, Shikotan and Habomai. Based on this position, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga completely ignored the EEF this year, although his predecessor Shinzo Abe attended the forum four times. It’s hard not to mention that Suga’s statement is just a populist gesture – the current prime minister is very unpopular, his government’s rating has fallen below 30%, while Japanese extremists love them. politicians who promise to ‘return the islands’.

Russia’s plans to intensively and rapidly develop the Kurils, announced in July 2021 during a trip to Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin’s region, were immediately greeted with hostility in Tokyo. Katsunobu Kato called the visit “contrary to Japan’s steadfast position regarding the northern territories and causing great regret”, and Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi called it “harmful to the feelings of the Japanese people”. A protest was also expressed to Russian Ambassador to Japan Mikhail Galuzine, who deemed this “unacceptable”, since the Kuril Islands were transferred to Russia “legally after World War II”.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov also expressed his displeasure over “hostile measures in the context of Tokyo’s territorial claims” against Russia. And the press secretary of the President of Russia Dmitry Peskov underlined that the head of government “visits the Russian regions that he considers necessary and on the development of which, including in cooperation with our partners, there is a lot of work. to do .”

It is evident that the Kuril Islands problem, as perceived by the Japanese side, is unlikely to be resolved under Tokyo terms.

Many analysts, and not just in Russia, are convinced that Japan’s insistence on the so-called “northern territories” is based on purely selfish and practical interests. The islands themselves represent little of a tangible advantage, given their modest size and harsh nature. For Tokyo, the richness of the sea in the economic zone adjacent to the islands and, in part, the opportunities for tourism development are the most important.

However, Moscow leaves Tokyo no hope in terms of territories, instead offering to focus on economic cooperation, which would give the two countries far more tangible results than failed attempts at antagonism.


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