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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Japan Hopes For Russia Treaty Progress

TOKYO, Japan- One of Japan's greatest hopes for the new century is that it will be able to sign a peace treaty with Russia to put a formal end to World War Two hostilities.

But when Japanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono returns from a two-day visit to Russia next week he is likely to be empty-handed.

Kono is to meet his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, January 16 in Moscow, for talks aimed at paving the way for a meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and Russia's President Vladimir Putin. The two are expected to meet in the Siberian city of Irkutsk next month.

Tokyo refuses to sign a treaty, or provide substantial aid, without the return of four rocky islands that lie just 15 km off its northernmost main island of Hokkaido. Russia seized the islands in the waning days of World War Two.

"It's a very important visit in terms of preparation," a Foreign Ministry official said. "We expect them to have discussions on a wide range of issues, including economic assistance and the peace treaty."

Analysts held out little hope of substantial progress.

"We really can't expect very much," said diplomatic commentator Tsutomu Ono. "Russia hopes for help with economic development, while Japan wants an agreement on the islands.

"But given the fact that Putin recently appears set on projecting an image of a strong Russia -- look at the situation with the national anthem -- he may not be too interested in arranging for any sort of a compromise that involves giving up Russian territory."

Putin last month reinstated the popular Stalinist anthem along with a tsarist-era flag and eagle as national symbols.

At most, Ono said, Japan may make some proposal in connection with economic assistance.

WHY BOTHER?

Japan's insistence on the return of the islands it calls the Northern Territories is seen largely as an issue of national pride.

The islands lie 1,000 km north of Tokyo and are of little strategic and economic value, while Japan would face huge costs in boosting the standard of living of their residents to meet domestic levels.

Yet they have been the key sticking point in peace talks, the centre of decades of tortuous talks and broken promises.

A declaration to return two of the four islands was signed in 1956 but reneged upon by subsequent Soviet governments, which denied the very existence of the territorial row.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the final Soviet leader, acknowledged the problem but proposed leaving it to future generations to solve.

In 1997, then-leaders Boris Yeltsin and Ryutaro Hashimoto pledged to conclude a peace treaty by the end of 2000. The year closed without a resolution.

Japanese media reported recently that Putin may confirm in writing the 1956 declaration promising the initial return of two islands. Japan has in the past ruled out such an interim deal.

"It is too early to say at this point what sort of declaration may be issued," the Foreign Ministry official said. The conservative newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, however, said in a Friday editorial that no concessions should be made.

"We must enter the talks resolute in our stance that returning the four islands is the unshakeable consensus of the Japanese people," it said.

CASH, POPULARITY

In the long term, Russia stands to benefit the most because a large obstacle to Japanese financial aid would be removed.

With the island hurdle cleared, Japan would be able to provide funds to help Russian development. Calls for Japanese investment were a key topic when Putin visited Japan last year.

Most importantly, a Japanese prime minister who could win back the islands would see his popularity soar -- something that Mori, with rock-bottom support rates, desperately needs.

Thus Japanese leaders are eager to play up any signs of progress.

"There will probably be some sort of 'advance,'" Ono said "But it will be very small and based on a technicality."