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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Storm Rises Over Kurils Ahead of Japan Talks

Former Russian ambassadors gathered on the eve of the Japanese prime minister's state visit to Russia to insist that four islands in the Sea of Okhotsk are Russian territory and should not be handed back to the Japanese at any price.

The furor over the South Kuril Islands threatens to sour Russian-Japanese diplomatic relations, which have seen a tentative warming since the end of the Cold War, and to prevent the two countries from signing a peace treaty to officially end World War II hostilities.

The four islands, known in Japan as the Northern Territories, were seized from Japan at the end of World War II as the Japanese were on the point of surrender. They were ceded to the Soviet Union as part of the Yalta agreements in 1945, and Tokyo has been trying ever since to regain.

Last week, 18 former ambassadors sent an open letter to the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, sanctioning a peace treaty but emphasizing at the same time that the South Kurils should not be up for discussion.

"We consider that fulfilling Japan's territorial demands will in no way improve relations between the two countries," the letter stated. "One cannot but regard this as an attempt by revanchist forces in Japan to take advantage of the disturbances in Russia at this time and use the South Kuril Islands as a bargaining chip."

Nationalist Deputy Sergei Baburin, who headed Tuesday's conference, said the question of the Kurils was a territorial and not a political question.

"In that respect, no one has any doubts that the islands are an inseparable part of Russia," he said. "They have no bearing on the peace treaty that should be signed between Russia and Japan."

Stepan Chervonenko, 83, who served as the Soviet Union's ambassador to China, Czechoslovakia and France, said it was as unthinkable to give the Kurils back to Japan as it was for the Japanese to give Hokkaido island to Russia.

"The Kuril Islands are, and always will be, Russian territory," he said.

Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi arrives Wednesday for a summit the next day with the Russian government. The only hope of progress toward a treaty seems to depend on the willingness of both sides to compromise on the Kurils issue.

Both Russia and Japan have kept proposals for the fate of the islands under wraps, but media reports have speculated that joint sovereignty could be one solution.

Vladimir Rakhmanin, a spokesman from the Russian Foreign Ministry, said Tuesday the summit may look at proposals for joint economic cooperation on the islands.

But he added the subject could only be discussed by the Russian president and the Japanese prime minister.

"It is up to them to decide," he said.

Last week, the Japanese government pledged to give Russia $800 million as part of a $1.5 billion aid package laid out by the International Monetary Fund. The Japanese Embassy in Moscow denied claims that Tokyo was linking the fiscal assistance to the territorial dispute.

"Japan has long given up making such links," embassy spokesman Keiji Ide was quoted by Interfax as saying.