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Bid to solve Kurile Islands issue

By John Helmer, The Straits Times, 4 November 2000

Moscow - JAPAN'S Foreign Minister Yohei Kono has met Russian President Vladimir Putin to seek new approaches to end a territorial dispute and secure a formal peace treaty.

Sources say their meeting at the Kremlin is a concerted effort to emphasise the positive in relations between the two countries.

Mr Kono's arrival on Wednesday was greeted by a barrage of negative comment in the Russian media. Russian sentiment is hostile towards Japanese efforts to recover the Kurile Islands -- in Tokyo's parlance, the Northern Territories -- which have been under Russian control since the end of World War II.

His spokesman told The Straits Times that the end of next month is the deadline set in 1998 by then President Boris Yeltsin and the Japanese Prime Minister at the time, Mr Ryutaro Hashimoto, for resolving the territorial dispute, and putting in place a peace treaty between Russia and Japan.

A Russian newspaper reported as Mr Kono arrived in Moscow that the Kremlin may return to an old formula for settling the territorial dispute.

This would reportedly cede two minor Kurile islands to Japanese sovereignty, while retaining the larger and most important ones.

Asked whether the Japanese minister accepted that a new formula was required to settle the dispute, his spokesman declined to be specific.

He said a resolution of the issue is one of the three pillars of the minister's approach to Russia. The other two, he said, are stability in North-east Asia and economic cooperation.

Since 1998, we have been committed to using our best efforts to resolve the territorial problem by the end of the year, spokesman Yasuhisa Kawamura said. The deadline is approaching.

Published Russian speculation refers to the 1956 Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration as a possible basis for compromise between Moscow and Tokyo.

This provides for termination of the state of war, and agreement to negotiate a peace treaty and the return of two small Kurile islands, Habomai and Shikotan, off the Hokkaido coast, once the peace treaty is signed.

The Soviet government did not implement the agreement after Japan strengthened its military alliance with the US.

Mr Kono is heading a mainly economic delegation from Tokyo for the annual session of the Inter-Government Commission on Economic Cooperation.

His spokesman said that Mr Kono was also preparing the ground for the next meeting between Mr Putin and Japan's Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. This will take place during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Brunei later this month.

A leading Russian adviser to the government said the two governments had yet to reach a new economic agreement.

This was needed, he said, to clarify what projects to include, and what to drop, from the list that are currently eligible for Japanese government credits totalling US$900 million (S$1,575 million).