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Will the South Kurils become the Northern Territories again?

  • Will the South Kurils become the Northern Territories again

A one and half hour face to face talk on the margins of the ASEAN summit in Singapore of the Russian and Japanese leaders (the details of which Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov wasn’t even devoted to) spilled out into the world media about international relations about the prospects for resolving the secular conflict on the disputed lands between Moscow and Tokyo which in the terminology of the first are considered the South Kuriles, and according to the version of the second, the Northern territories.

A Pause, which lasted for 15 years, is interrupted. What are the consequences?

The last time officially at the bilateral diplomatic level the topic of the Kurils between Moscow and Tokyo was discussed in 2004.

Nearly 15 years after the interrupted dialogue, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a press conference in Singapore, not particularly devoting journalists to the details of his communication with Putin, still expressed confidence that the two leaders would be able to quickly resolve the territorial dispute and conclude peace treaty following the Second World War, which ended 73 years ago.

A new meeting between the Japanese prime minister and the Russian president is scheduled during the next G-20 summit in Argentina. It also turned out that at the beginning of 2019, Abe’s previously unannounced official visit to Moscow was scheduled. In addition, Putin will arrive in Tokyo in June 2019, at the next summit of the same G20, where he is likely to continue the Kuril talks with Abe.

 All these contacts at the highest level, in theory, are designed to move the protracted dispute off the ground, or at least return the situation to the provisions of 1956, when until the conclusion of a peace treaty there was very little ...

At the same time, most experts are sure that whatever the outcome of the new round of island negotiations may indirectly affect not only bilateral relations between Moscow and Tokyo, but also tangentially hook Washington’s and its geopolitical interests in this region.

In addition, as a result of a possible compromise, as well as Kremlin-favored diplomatic “multi-drop” receptions, Putin may be able to break through the diplomatic blockade of Moscow established by the West in 2014, after the annexation of the Ukrainian Crimea. Alexander Golts, an international observer of the opposition Russian Internet resource “Daily Journal”, called out his material on today's Ezha tape and said: “Shall we change the Kurils to the Crimea?”

Let's talk about the realistic consequences of a possible diplomatic settlement of the question of the disputed territories between Moscow and Tokyo, a bit lower, but for now briefly recall the history of the issue.

Islands of contention: from the Romanov dynasty to the Soviet general secretaries.

Aware of the fact that this conflict is widely and comprehensively covered in the open sources of the World Wide Web (including the know-all of Wikipedia ), for brevity, we note only the key points of the dispute between Moscow and Tokyo and pay attention to some important nuances, which usually only narrow-profile specialists stop at.

In the argumentation of the official Tokyo concerning the ownership of the Kuril Islands, a special place is occupied by references to the 19th century treaties - the Simodia trade agreement of 1855 (on which the border was drawn between the islands of Urup and Iturup, and Sakhalin remained unlimited) and the St. Petersburg treaty of 1875 (according to which Japan recognized the whole of Sakhalin to Russia in exchange for the transfer of all the Kuril Islands to it). However, the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905 canceled out all previous agreements, since under international law the state of war between states ends all treaties between them.

The Second World War made the situation even more confusing. Recall that in April 1941, in Moscow, the Neutrality Pact was signed between the USSR and Japan, which Tokyo strictly adhered to. But this document was denounced by the Soviet Union on April 5, 1945, and in August (after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans) the USSR entered the war against Japan to “have time for the winners' feast” to the territorial reorganization of the world, now not in Europe, and in Asia.

On August 14, 1945, the Japanese emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of his country. But the armed forces of the Soviet Union in the Far East and after that continued their offensive operations against Japan. Therefore, later the Japanese government all the time claimed that the Kuril Islands were occupied by the Soviet Union after Japan announced its surrender. So, according to the Japanese, the islands were “stolen” by the Soviet Union already in peacetime.

At the same time, Moscow appeals to the fact that complete and unconditional surrender is fundamentally different from just capitulation, which means admitting defeat in hostilities and does not affect the international legal personality of the defeated power, because the official signing of the Unconditional Surrender Act by Japan only happened on September 2, 1945.

Since then, the return of the Kuriles has turned into a national idea for the Japanese. Even during the Soviet period of Moscow’s domination in the world communist movement, the program of the Communist Party of Japan contained a clause on the return of its original Northern territories to the Bosom of the Rising Sun. And experts say that the islands themselves are not the main thing. Japan aims to expand living space at the expense of the vast waters around the Kuriles.

Nevertheless, the existence of a territorial dispute did not allow, after the aforementioned surrender, to conclude a peace treaty between Japan and the Soviet Union and its legal successor, the Russian Federation, despite quite normal diplomatic relations and close trade ties between Moscow and Tokyo. 

Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Putin’s predecessors in attempts to untie the Kuril knot

In the Soviet-Japanese declaration of October 19, 1956, it was said that the state of war would cease, as well as the consent of the USSR to transfer Japan the islands of Habomai and Shikotan - but after the conclusion of a peace treaty. However, a declaration is not a contract, but a protocol of intent. And the declaration is not about return, but about transfer, that is, about the willingness to dispose of its territory as goodwill.

Moscow hoped that, by giving the two islands of the Kuril Ridge to Japan, it would enlist the neutral status of Japan, like the one already in other former allies of Berlin, Austria and Finland. As an incentive in the Kremlin, the Soviet Union also called for the support of the procedure for Japan’s accession to the UN. In addition, the Japanese fish lobby was interested, at least in such a compromise, in order to expand its fishing zone.

Many believe that the 1956 agreements were not implemented due to Khrushchev’s excessive emotionality, which often changed the earlier intended decision. Others say that the Americans prevented the practical implementation of the declaration. Allegedly, the then CIA director Allen Dulles, fearing Japanese neutrality, decided to raise the stakes in the game and offered the Japanese Foreign Minister Mamore Shigemitsu an option in which Japan should demand all four islands for a peace treaty with the USSR.

"If you agree to two, you will not get back to South Okinawa, with the adjacent islands, which were then still under American occupation," Dulles allegedly stated this.

Okinawa for Japan is much more important than the tiny piece of the southern part of the Kuriles she promised her, and she began to demand all the islands of this zone, including the largest Kunashir and Iturup.

However, Japan’s de facto recognition of the Soviet border in the Kuril Islands is the fishing agreements it signed with the Soviet Union, concluded at the sunset of the Khrushchev rule in 1963 and Brezhnev in 1981.

The observer of Novaya Gazeta, Elena Masyuk, in 2015 recalled the chronology of subsequent consultations between Moscow and Tokyo around the Kuriles.

In the early 90s, the Japanese offered Russia money for the Kuril Islands - $ 28 billion. Only in one year of the official catch of seafood in the waters of the Kuril Islands you can get more than 4 billion dollars, that is, after 7 years, Japan would return more than the money to itself. And this would be in addition to the increased authority and strength of the will of the Japanese state in upholding national interests.

The Third (Extraordinary) Congress of the members of the Verkhovna Rada of Russia (March-April 1991) accused Gorbachev of trying to sell a part of the state territory to foreigners. The Kuriles were not sold, but during his visit to Japan, President of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev recognized the equal rights of the USSR and Japan in the dispute over the ownership of the Southern Kuriles.

And further, already after the collapse of the USSR, there was a five-stage plan of the President of Russia Boris Yeltsin for solving the territorial problem between Russia and Japan. In particular, one of them assumed a joint protectorate of Russia and Japan over the South Kuriles.

In 2001, an informal agreement was reached at a meeting between President Putin and Prime Minister Mori on the gradual transfer of the Northern Territories to Japan: first the Little Kuril Ridge and Shikotan Island, and only then the signing of a peace treaty. And the islands of Kunashir and Iturup will be given to the joint economic use of Russia and Japan before the final determination of their status.

However, in Japan itself, foreign policy (especially before the elections) often becomes a reflection of the internal political struggle, just as the right-wing forces in Europe now compete with each other for the title of the country's greatest patriot. The next Prime Minister of Japan, Koizumi, has already demanded that Russia return all four islands even before the conclusion of a peace treaty and the process has again stalled.

Kuriles in the context of the Crimea and international politics

Recall that in September Putin unexpectedly offered the Japanese to conclude a peace treaty before the end of the year without any preliminary conditions, i. e. question about the islands again returned to the discussion field.

However, in addition to the Russian there is also the Japanese side. Vasily Golovin, a TASS correspondent in Tokyo, quoted the opinion of his colleague working at the Singapore site and close to the Japanese delegation from the correspondent of the Kyodo news agency, who not quite correctly called upon all those who wrote to calm down - ! ”

The same Golovin, immediately after the end of the summit in Singapore, wrote on his Facebook page  that “The leaders of all six opposition parties in Japan held an emergency meeting today and decided to call the hearings to the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as soon as possible - so that he can speak about his mysterious talks in Singapore with the President of the Russian Federation. Politicians and journalists in Tokyo had a very strong impression that there were some weighty agreements reached on the South Kuriles. What causes a rush, but, I fear, a vain public interest. ”

After analyzing the latest press, Golovin writes that local experts “suspect that Prime Minister Abe may be inclined towards the two-island option - it’s better, they say, to get something than nothing. However, taking into account public opinion, he needs to somehow define in the final decision the future of the largest and most populated Iturup and Kunashir, ”the TASS correspondent in Tokyo describes the mentality of the Japanese.

Putin has repeatedly stated that he recognizes the document in 1956 in full. However, he also said that in the ninth article the conditions for the transfer of Japan to Shikotan and Habomai are not specified at all, it does not indicate under whose sovereignty they will be after that.

Moscow would have arranged the option when the islands would be given to the Japanese for use, but legally they would still belong to Russia. Tokyo is not satisfied with this option. They have already stated that Japanese sovereignty in these territories will not be subject to bargaining. Moscow, for its part, recalls that the declaration of 1956 says nothing about the islands of Iturup and Kunashir - and therefore is not going to negotiate them.

It is clear that during the negotiations, Moscow will insist that in the future there would be no American military facilities on the Kuril Islands. Golovin notes on this point: “Thus, a small wedge is driven into the union of Tokyo and Washington. States cannot like this adjustment of their security treaty with a Far Eastern ally. Which implies that the US military guarantees with the corresponding obligations of Japan apply to all of its territory. "

At the same time, we note that it is the American defense that the Japanese are counting on in confronting the territorial claims of another powerful neighbor, China.

 It is difficult to disagree with the conclusions of the already mentioned Alexander Goltz: “Obviously, playing the Japanese gambit, the Kremlin is ready to sacrifice the islands in order to acquire a new quality: to break through the isolation that took shape around Russia because of the annexation of the Crimea and unleashing a secret war in the Donbass. Even better, if it succeeds in sowing a conflict between Japan and the United States. In short, the Russian foreign policy has a new goal - to exchange the Kuriles to the Crimea ... "

(Ending follows)

Alexander Voronin, FNI


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