Pragmatism at sauna summit Birch-twig diplomacy: Russia, Japan ignore land dispute and pursue economic ties.

November 07, 1997

EVEN GROWN MEN turn into softies in the steamy temperatures of a sauna. Add the ancient custom of bathers beating one another with birch twigs and you can understand what happened to Russian leader Boris N. Yeltsin and Japanese leader Ryutaro Hashimoto at their recent summit.

Their informal, Siberian "no-neckties" summit worked. The two men ignored a land dispute that has long prevented normalization of relations. They now hope to sign a belated World War II peace treaty by 2000.

"This is a major breakthrough in relations," Mr. Yeltsin enthused. A Japanese official said it could "dramatically change the geopolitical scenery of northeast Asia."

This new pragmatism stems from Mr. Hashimoto. Last summer, he dropped Japan's long-standing insistence that Russia return four small Kuril Islands. Instead, he advocated repairing their ties on the basis of "mutual benefit, mutual trust and long-term vision."

In agreeing to pursue an agenda of economic cooperation with Russia, Japan is trying to counter China's rising clout. Japan has expressed its willingness to provide badly needed investments for Russia. In return, Japan is to receive raw materials and energy supplies.

Reconciliation could have profound economic and political consequences. By bankrolling development, Japan could become the leading agent for modernization in Russia.

Pub Date: 11/07/97

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