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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tokyo Talks: A Golden Opportunity

President Boris Yeltsin's planned visit to Tokyo this week for the summit of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations represents a remarkable opportunity that both sides should exploit.


This is the third time in a year that a trip by Yeltsin to Japan has been scheduled or discussed, yet this week's visit would mark Yeltsin's first face-to-face talks in Japan.


The chairman of the Japan's Liberal Democratic Party said Monday in Tokyo that he thought the Yeltsin visit could go a long way toward "melting ice" between the two countries, Itar-Tass reported. Such ice melting is long overdue.


In the last 12 months, bilateral relations between the two countries have degenerated into a single issue: Who should own the Kuril Islands off Japan's northern coast?


The intransigence of both sides was demonstrated dramatically last September when Yeltsin cancelled a trip to Tokyo with just 24 hour's notice. This spring, a summit discussed by the Russians, but never formally scheduled, was also cancelled.


The Kuril Islands, which Japan calls the Northern Territories, were seized by the Soviet Union in the final days of World War II. Japan contends that the action was illegal and has maintained an unwavering policy demanding the return of the islands as a prerequisite to a Russia-Japan peace treaty. About 25, 000 Russians now live on the islands.


This week's planned visit by Yeltsin to Tokyo is unlike the previous failed attempts to hold talks, which were complicated by virtue of their billing as full-scale summits. In such circumstances, Yeltsin could scarcely afford to attend without offering a Russian proposal to resolve the Kurils dispute. Yet doing so would have handed nationalist forces at home a powerful weapon against him.


Because this trip has a second goal - attracting aid for Russian reforms - Yeltsin has a free hand to discuss the territorial issue without suffering political ramifications in the event of failure.


One possible compromise on the Kurils would be Russia's return of Shikotan, a less-important island, and the uninhabited Habbomai Group in exchange for a withdrawal of claims by Japan to the other two islands, Kunashir and Iturup. The proposal, hinted at last year by a senior Yeltsin aide, has the virtue of returning the islands most closely located to Japan and those least populated by Russians.


But whether or not they move closer to a solution on the Kurils, Russia and Japan should use this week's meetings to move beyond the island dispute and get on with the pressing business of building a relationship suited to the new political realities on both sides of the Sea of Japan.