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The Kuril Islands problem as a stumbling point between Russia and Japan

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The problem of the territorial sovereignty over the Southern Kuril Islands or the territorial dispute between Russia and Japan has been unresolved since the end of the World War II and remains as it is up to nowadays, writes Alex Ivanov, Moscow correspondent.

The issue of ownership of the islands remains in the focus of bilateral relations between Moscow and Tokyo, although the Russian side is making active efforts to "dissolve" this issue and find a replacement for it mainly through economic projects. Nevertheless, Tokyo does not give up trying to present the problem of the Kuril Islands as the main one on the bilateral agenda.

After the war, all the Kuril Islands were incorporated into the USSR, but the ownership of the islands of Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and the Habomai group of islands is disputed by Japan, which considers them an occupied part of the country. Though the 4 islands themselves represent a rather small area, total area of the disputed territory, including the 200-mile economic zone, is approximately 200.000 square kilometres.

Russia claims that its sovereignty over the southern Kuril Islands is absolutely legal and is not subject to doubt and discussion, and declares that it does not recognize the very fact of the existence of a territorial dispute with Japan. The problem of ownership of the southern Kuril Islands is the main obstacle to the full settlement of Russian-Japanese relations and the signing of a peace treaty after the WWII. Moreover, the amendments to the Russian Constitution approved last year put an end to the Kuril issue, since the Basic Law prohibits the transfer of Russian territories.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently once again has draw the line under the dispute with Japan over the status of the Southern Kurils, which lasted 65 years. At the main event of the Eastern Economic Forum in early September 2021 he indicated that Moscow would no longer decide the fate of the islands bilaterally and questioned the strength of the 1956 Declaration that defines the relations between the Soviet Union and Japan. Thus, Putin removed the threats that would have arisen in the event of the transfer of the islands, experts say, but this could deprive the Far East of Japanese investments.

In the 1956 Declaration the Soviet Union agreed to the transfer of the Habomai Islands and the Shikotan Islands to Japan on the condition that the actual transfer of these islands to Japan would be made after the conclusion of a Peace Treaty between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Japan.

In the conditions of the Cold War the unpredictable and obviously weak Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wanted to encourage Japan to adopt the status of a neutral state by transferring the two islands and concluding the peace treaty. However, later the Japanese side refused to sign a peace treaty under pressure from the United States, which threatened that if Japan withdrew its claims to the islands of Kunashir and Iturup, the Ryukyu archipelago with the island of Okinawa, which was then under the US administration on the basis of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, would not be returned to Japan.

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President Putin, speaking at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, announced that entrepreneurs on the Kuril Islands will be exempt from taxes on profit, property, land for ten years, as well as reduce insurance premiums; customs privileges are also provided.  

Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said that the special tax regime proposed by Vladimir Putin in the Kuril Islands should not violate the laws of the two countries. 

"Based on the indicated position, we would like to continue to conduct a constructive dialogue with Russia in order to create suitable conditions for signing a peace treaty," Motegi added.

Japan said that Moscow's plans to create a special economic zone in the Kuril Islands, which were announced at the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok by Russian President Vladimir Putin, contradict Tokyo's position. According to Japanese Government Secretary General Katsunobu Kato, calls to Japanese and foreign companies to participate in the economic development of the territory do not meet the "spirit of the agreement" reached by the leaders of the two states on joint economic activities on the islands of Kunashir, Iturup, Shikotan and Habomai. Based on this position, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga completely ignored the EEF this year, although his predecessor Shinzo Abe attended the forum four times. It is difficult not to mention that Suga’s statement is merely a populist gesture – the current prime minister is very unpopular, the rating of his government has fallen below 30%, while Japanese hardliners love politicians who promise to "return the islands".

Russia's plans to intensively and rapidly develop the Kuriles, which were announced in July 2021 during a trip to the region by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, were immediately met with hostility in Tokyo. Katsunobu Kato called that visit "contrary to Japan's consistent position regarding the northern territories and causing great regret," and Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi called it "hurting the feelings of the people of Japan." A protest was also expressed to the Russian ambassador to Japan Mikhail Galuzin, who considered it "unacceptable", since the Kuril Islands were transferred to Russia "legally after the Second World War".

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov also voiced his dissatisfaction in connection with "unfriendly steps in the context of Tokyo's territorial claims" to Russia. And the press secretary of the President of Russia Dmitry Peskov pointed out that the head of government "visits those Russian regions that he considers necessary and on the development of which, including in cooperation with our partners, there is a lot of work to be done."

It is obvious that the problem of the Kuril Islands, as it is viewed by the Japanese side, is unlikely to find its solution on the terms of Tokyo.

Many analysts, and not only in Russia, are convinced that Japan's insistence on the so-called "northern territories" is based on purely selfish and practical interests. The islands themselves hardly represent any tangible benefit, given their modest size and harsh nature. For Tokyo, the sea wealth in the economic zone adjacent to the islands and, in part, the opportunities for tourism development are most important.

However, Moscow does not leave Tokyo with any hopes in terms of territories, offering instead to focus on economic cooperation, which would give both countries much more tangible results than fruitless attempts to antagonize each other.

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