Russia Criticism Bodes Ill for Japan Island Talks Next Week

(Bloomberg) -- Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono’s visit to Russia for talks on a long-running territorial dispute look set to be overshadowed by anger over official comments about the negotiations.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Japanese ambassador Wednesday to protest his government’s recent remarks ahead of Kono’s arrival on Saturday. The island dispute has kept the two countries from sealing a peace treaty since World War II.

Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov told Toyohisa Kozuki Wednesday that recent comments by Japanese officials distorted a 1956 agreement and created tension around the problem, according to a statement on the ministry’s website.

Japan’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday that Kozuki had been summoned and explained Japan’s position. It did not provide further details, citing the need for a quiet environment for the negotiations.

Without specifying who had made the comments, the Russian Foreign Ministry criticized the description of 2019 as a “turning point” in the talks and the need to gain the agreement of the Russian residents of the islands for a transfer to Japan.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made comments along these lines in a Jan. 1 statement and a Jan. 4 press conference.

Political Capital

Abe has devoted political capital in office to resolve the island dispute that has simmered since the then Soviet Union seized what Russia calls the Southern Kurils at the end of World War II, expelling thousands of Japanese residents.

Japan refers to the four islands as the Northern Territories.

Abe, whose father also battled for a resolution of the dispute, renewed his vow to do all in his power to settle the issue during a Jan. 6 visit to his family grave in southwestern Japan.

“Negotiations are always with counter-parties, so I cannot preempt or pre-judge the outcome, but my hope is to seek as much progress as possible in the negotiations with President Putin,” Abe said in translated comments to reporters Thursday in London, referring to his planned summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin later this month.

Forging closer relations with Russia would also give Japan a new lever of influence over China and North Korea, two nuclear-armed rivals that Putin has assiduously courted. For the Kremlin, deeper ties to America’s richest ally would help alleviate Russia’s isolation from the West, particularly if the two islands likely to be returned will be exempt from Japan’s security pact with the U.S., as Putin is demanding.

He has met with Putin 24 times since 2012.

The two leaders sparked speculation of a compromise last year by agreeing to accelerate talks based on a 1956 declaration that refers to the transfer of only two of the islands, rather than the four that Japan officially claims.

Foreign Minister Kono is set to meet his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Moscow Jan. 14.

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