The last-minute cancellation of President Boris N. Yeltsin' visit to Tokyo underscores the abnormally complicated nature of Japanese-Russian relations. While other erstwhile enemies have increasingly come together, those two important nations are hostages of their past. They maintain diplomatic relations. But 47 years after the end of World War they are still without a peace treaty.
During the Cold War years, one of the recurring nightmare scenarios in Washington had the Kremlin and Tokyo burying their differences and ganging up on the rest of the world. The Japanese, under that paranoia scenario, were to provide the money and know-how to exploit Siberia's vast forests and mineral riches and manpower. That never happened. Not under communism, not afterward.
What prevents normalization of Russo-Japanese relations is the fate of four Kuril Islands, small dots in the Pacific which Stalin grabbed at the end of World War II. Japan, promising a major aid package in return, demands them back. But while the economic aspects of such a deal are tempting to President Yeltsin, an increasing number of Russians reject any talk about relinquishing the Kuril Islands. If Russia concedes territory to Japan, that might open the floodgates for similar demands by countries such as Romania, Poland, even China.
The most vocal opposition to any deal with Japan comes from Russian nationalists, who recall the past humiliations of a weak Russia. They mention Japan's 1904 surprise attack on Russian positions in the Far East, the subsequent routing of the czarist army and navy and a peace accord that was disadvantageous to Russia. A mirror image of these sentiments plays in Japan.
The Kuril question was the main sticking point in 1991, when Mikhail S. Gorbachev visited Japan and returned empty-handed. This time Mr. Yeltsin decided that even a last-minute cancellation was better than a repeat failure. He argued he wanted to concentrate on internal matters and, anyway, a planned Russo-Japanese natural gas treaty was not ready for signing. From his point of view relations between Moscow and Tokyo would not get any better, but neither would they get any worse.
The cancellation of the Yeltsin visit did not cause any great shock in Tokyo. "Our relations are unchanged," a government spokesman said.
Tokyo can afford to take a wait-and-see attitude. Much of the world may be in economic chaos, but Japan is enjoying a healthy trade balance. An aid package promised to Russia by the International Monetary Fund continues to be in limbo, whereas Japan is ready to cough up billions of dollars any time Moscow wants.
It's just a matter of four little islands.