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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Getting Past the Kurils

As November winds down with no resolution to the issue of the Southern Kurils (or "Northern Territories," depending on your perspective) in sight, it is clear that no peace treaty will be signed between Japan and Russia before the end of 2000. A workable compromise solution between the two sides is needed in order to end the impasse that has impeded the normalization of relations between the two nations for the past 55 years.

One realistic compromise would be to draw the line of territorial control between Iturup and Kunashir Islands (with Shikotan and the Habomai group being returned along with Kunashir to Japanese control). In other words, three islands to Japan, one to Russia (Iturup). A glance at recent history shows that this does not seem like such an unworkable deal. In 1956 the Soviet Union agreed to return Shikotan and the Habomai group to Japan, in exchange for a peace treaty and explicit recognition from Tokyo that all territorial issues were resolved. Japan decided to hold out for all four islands. Taking this as a starting point, we can assume that Russia is still willing to discuss this two-island option if Japan is ready to listen. In fact, during President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Tokyo in September, the Russian side indicated a willingness to abide by this proposal. We can then assume that the real issue involves the two larger, more populous islands of Kunashir and Iturup.

The three islands that would go to Japan under this scheme are administratively grouped into the South Kuril region, while Iturup is placed within the Kuril administrative region (both regions are administered within the Sakhalin region). This administrative grouping reflects economic and political differences between the islands.

The citizens of Iturup generally look northward to Sakhalin and to the Primorye region, and even beyond, for economic and political guidance. Reportedly, U.S. products are regularly seen in markets there, many of them originating in Alaska. In the cannery factories on that island, "Made in the U.S.A." labels can be seen on the machinery. Iturup exports 60 percent of its marine products to the United States and 30 percent to Japan. According to recent reports, a very rare metal called rhenium has been found in the volcanoes on the northern half of the island of Iturup. Rhenium is used in the manufacture of certain electronic components, spacecraft and missiles, and also in the production of high-grade octane fuel. If this development is successful, the citizens of Iturup could see significant economic benefits. The economic situation on Iturup has already improved to the point that the local newspaper reports that the population has grown over the past few years, something that is rare in Russia. The people on the island are reportedly very cool toward Japan and toward the idea of being incorporated politically into Japan.

On Kunashir, on the other hand, Japan is viewed favorably by the citizens. Vladimir Zema, the administrative head of the South Kuril region, claims that Japan’s popularity is growing by the day and that many people favor political union with Japan. But the economic situation is grim. Power plants do not have enough fuel and power outages are a daily reality. On Shikotan, the situation is even worse. Japan recently had to deliver 2,000 tons of diesel fuel to the beleaguered islanders. In 1994 the population there was 6,543 — today it stands at just 3,746.

The largest problem confronting Moscow and Tokyo should a compromise be reached is what to do with the local population. Many residents would choose to return to Sakhalin, the Maritime Province, or to Russia proper. In this case, the Japanese government should pay the relocation costs. However, a good number of people would presumably wish to stay under Japanese control. An influential think tank in Tokyo has suggested a proposal that would address this issue: Japan should grant permanent-resident status to those citizens who have lived on the islands for more than five years and pay the relocation costs of those wishing to return to Russia. This proposal is a good starting point for discussions. Japan may wish for the current residents to remain on the islands because the number of Japanese wishing to move to the islands would undoubtedly be minimal.

There are compelling political and strategic reasons for resolving the Kuril issue as soon as possible. These two former giants of East Asia feel themselves being marginalized in the region. The continued strategic dominance of the United States and the growing power of China threaten to further diminish the roles of Tokyo and Moscow. By putting aside historical animosities and arriving at a strategic rapprochement, both Tokyo and Moscow can make a bold statement that they refuse to be marginalized in the region. Japan can demonstrate that it has the capacity to think and act proactively; Russia can show that it is newly emerging as a player in East Asia. Both sides can help one another regain lost diplomatic clout. A Japanese-Russian rapprochement could be a key to stability in northeast Asia. But if the two nations want to bring an end to the impasse dramatic steps are necessary at both ends. Tokyo and Moscow need to realize that Japanese-Russian relations are not a zero-sum game.

Joseph Ferguson is a Fulbright Fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. He contributed this comment, which reflects his personal opinions, to The Moscow Times.