Under pressure, Japan backs off from refusal to give substantial aid to Moscow TURMOIL IN RUSSIA

March 28, 1993|By Boston Globe The New York Times News Service contributed to this article.

TOKYO -- The political crisis in Russia, coupled with diplomatic pressure from the West, is forcing Japan to back off from its refusal to provide substantial financial aid to its neighbor until Moscow agrees to return four islands seized after World War II.

"The reason? Simple," a high-ranking Japanese government official said. "If Boris Yeltsin goes down, we don't want Japan singled out as the country that 'lost Russia.' "

Bending to the will of the United States and Europe, Tokyo is joining the international support for the embattled Russian president and is expected to push hard, if grudgingly, for major assistance to Russia.

The Clinton administration has proposed that the International Monetary Fund increase its assistance to Russia and ease some restrictions that have blocked the delivery of much Western aid promised last year.

Under a plan submitted to other Western nations, the administration would have the IMF increase aid to $13.5 billion a year, compared with $8.5 billion in aid it was expected to provide a year ago, Western officials said. About $1 billion has actually been authorized.

The total aid proposed last year for Russia by the IMF, the United States and the six other major industrial democracies was $24 billion. Of that sum, about $15 billion was delivered, mostly in the form of credits for Russian imports.

The main reason for the shortfall was Russia's failure to make all the economic reforms sought by Western bankers.

At an emergency session of foreign and finance ministers from the Group of Seven richest industrialized nations here next month, Japan is expected to propose that foreign governments write off more than half of Russia's $75 billion foreign debt. And Tokyo may even give hundreds of millions of dollars in direct aid, a foreign policy shift likely to draw protests from Japanese conservatives and moderates who oppose bailing out Russia until the Kuril Islands are returned.

"It is a question of timing," said Masamichi Hanabusa, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry. "Our basic policy remains seeking the return of the islands. But this is also not the right time to expect Russian leaders to make a drastic change of their position."

Japan has been criticized by France, Germany and other Group of Seven nations for pressing the "Northern Territories issue" as Russia teeters on the edge of social, political and economic collapse.

Despite Mr. Hanabusa's assertion that this does not signal a major policy shift -- "We have always wanted to expand bilateral ties," he insisted -- the new stance marks a sharp departure from Tokyo's long-standing refusal to provide economic aid to Moscow until the islands off the tip of Hokkaido are again under the Japanese flag.

The fate of the valueless islands, seized by the Soviet Red Army shortly after Japan's defeat in 1945, is an emotional issue in both countries. Conservatives in Moscow oppose giving up the islands. For Mr. Yeltsin to do so at this precarious moment would lend powerful ammunition to the Communists seeking his downfall.

Japan has railed right back: "Japan never fired a shot at Russia" during World War II, Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe declared last month. "Yet Russia detained 600,000 Japanese citizens and unfairly seized Japanese territory. Russia caused 50,000 of those prisoners to starve to death and never returned islands that are rightfully Japanese."

So deep is the divide over the Northern Territories that the two neighbors have never signed a peace treaty formally ending World War II.

Along with next month's emergency meeting of foreign and financial ministers, Japan will be host for the annual Group of Seven summit set for July. Along with Japan, the member nations are the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Germany and Italy.

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