Coup leaves Japan's effort to regain islands in limbo THE SOVIET CRISIS

August 28, 1991|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- Nearly a week after the collapse of the coup attempt that demolished communism in Moscow, Tokyo remains undecided whether it is a golden opportunity or a dark threat to the central goal of four decades of Japanese policy on the Soviet Union.

Virtually since World War II, Japan's main goal has been to get back the four islands north of Hokkaido that Josef V. Stalin sent the Soviet army to occupy as Japan was signing its surrender to the Allies.

That remains Japan's policy. Over the weekend, the government said Tokyo could offer significant economic help if the Soviet Union would sign a peace treaty that resolved the territorial dispute.

But yesterday, after more than a week of reactions that always seem to be a day or more behind the rapid changes in Moscow, Japanese officials found themselves surveying a scene that no longer gave clear answers to the most fundamental questions about their policy.

Does the seeming death of hard-line communism in the Soviet Union, and the penchant for new beginnings, make it more likely that Soviet officials can give up the small islands? If so, how long will it take them to deal with pressing issues at home before they can turn to a detail of old international business?

Or does the rise of nationalism among the republics, especially inRussia, portend a return to the deep freeze for the territorial issues, which President Mikhail S. Gorbachev had shown a possible willingness to address?

For that matter, with more republics announcing secession and with steadily mounting confusion as to who is in charge of the central government, with whom might Japan now seek to negotiate a peace treaty?

If it is Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, is that good because he is a dedicated reformer or bad because he is a Russian nationalist?

"Everyone is glad to see the final collapse of Soviet communism," a Japanese official said yesterday, "and Japan hopes that there will be real economic reforms now and we will be able to join in the West's economic help to the Soviet Union. But our position is the same: Even if we do a bit more, we won't be able to do as much as we could if there were a peace treaty."

Months before the coup, that position already had put Japan at odds with European and other leading industrial countries that advocated more and faster aid.

Yesterday, Japanese officials seemed to welcome the respite offered by President Bush's assertion that this week's meeting of the Group of Seven industrial nations to review events in Moscow would not produce any immediate financial aid.

Similarly, Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu seemed more eager to line up with Mr. Bush on delaying recognition of the three Baltic republics.

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