Yeltsin cancels visit to Tokyo as dispute over islands remains unresolved

September 10, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- With Russia and Japan stubbornly refusing to budge in a dispute over four Pacific islands, President Boris N. Yeltsin yesterday abruptly called off a crucial trip to Tokyo that was to have begun Sunday.

The Russian president had hoped his meetings with Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa would unlock billions of dollars in aid, but national pride on both sides apparently wrecked the chances for an agreement.

A statement released by Mr. Yeltsin's office yesterday explained that the postponement "due to a number of circumstances" had been made "after exchanging opinions with the heads of government, parliament and the security council."

In Tokyo, chief government spokesman Koichi Kato told a news conference: "Japan very much regrets the postponement because Yeltsin's visit -- the first by a Russian leader -- would have been significant, marking a new step in relations between Japan and Russia.

"The solution of the Northern Territories issue may have been delayed by this, but Japan will take its time and persist with its claim," he said.

Statements in recent days from Japanese leaders had made it clear that Mr. Yeltsin should not bother making the trip unless he was willing to bargain on the return of the islands.

The diplomatic fiasco means that Russia, staggering from its legacy of communism, will continue to receive virtually no assistance from one of the world's richest nations.

Japanese banking sources here suggested that financial institutions in Japan have been prepared to add more than $10 billion to the aid package for Russia if the right conditions were met.

At issue are the southernmost Kuril Islands -- called the Northern Territories by the Japanese -- which were seized by Soviet troops at the end of World War II. Japan has refused to contribute a significant share to the aid package for Russia until its claims to the islands are resolved.

Mr. Yeltsin has long suggested that a settlement was possible. Indeed, he personally is said to believe the islands should be returned.

But the growing strength of Russian nationalists -- who are bitterly opposed to any territorial concessions -- has forced Mr. Yeltsin's hand.

A recent poll found that 76 percent of Russians are against handing the islands over to Japan.

The Russian president, assessing the political costs, warned the Japanese not to expect very much from him. Early yesterday afternoon, while the trip was still on, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported that the Russians and Japanese planned to discuss a proposal to demilitarize the islands.

Shortly afterward, Mr. Yeltsin met with his security council to discuss the visit. Even as a group of Japanese journalists gathered at the Kremlin for a meeting with Mr. Yeltsin, word came that the trip had been called off.

No official reason was given, but Mr. Yeltsin apparently believed that he could not leave for Tokyo without some assurance that an agreement would be sealed -- and that what was now politically possible in Russia was unacceptable to the Japanese.

The Kuril Islands, with a population of 57,000, sit in excellent fishing waters and are a rich source of timber. But diplomats here say the dispute is rooted in Japanese and Russian national self-esteem and goes far beyond the actual value of the islands to either country.

Originally populated by a group of people called the Ainu, they were visited by both Russian traders and Japanese surveyors over a period of more than 100 years until they were incorporated into Japan in 1855.

The Soviets took the Kurils, as well as southern Sakhalin Island, in 1945 and expelled the Japanese living on them. But Moscow and Tokyo have never signed a peace treaty putting an official end to World War II, and the islands' standing under international law is uncertain at best.

Russian opponents of any deal over the islands warned that it would not necessarily let loose a flow of aid from Japan. They suggested that a negotiated agreement might encourage right-wing elements in the Japanese government to demand further territorial concessions, perhaps including Sakhalin Island.

They worried, despite Mr. Miyazawa's denials, that Japan might insist on exclusive development rights to the Russian Far East and Siberia -- areas rich in resources to which Japan has paid little attention.

Japanese businesses, wary of Russian instability, have until now shied away from their northwestern neighbor. Even as South Korean firms are flocking to the Russian Far East, trade between Russia and Japan has been steadily declining. In 1991, it fell 20 percent, and this year it fell another 50 percent, according to the business newspaper VEK.

Mr. Yeltsin had also planned a visit to Seoul, South Korea, next week. After phoning Mr. Miyazawa in Tokyo last night, he called Roh Tae Woo, the South Korean president. The Russian leader now plans to fly to Seoul in December and will also visit Beijing on that trip.

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