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TOP "Southern Kuriles" - as an apple of discord?

Japanese media outlets against the special economic zone on disputed islands

TOP "Southern Kuriles" - as an apple of discord?
Photo: shutterstock.com

Valery Kistanov

Head of the Center for Japanese Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies
Special project TORA and Free Port

The 6nd Eastern Economic Forum will take place in Vladivostok on September 7-2. On September 7, it is planned to hold a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This will be the second Russian-Japanese summit this year and the second meeting of the leaders of the two countries at this forum. One of the main topics of the informal "summit" will be the joint economic activities of Russia and Japan in the southern Kuriles, on which an agreement in principle was reached between Putin and Abe during the visit of the Russian president to Japan in December last year.

 As is known, these islands moved to the USSR following the Second World War, and Russia legitimately owns them as the legal successor of the Soviet Union. Japan, for its part, regards Russia's possession of islands as illegal and requires them to be returned, calling their northern territories. The said agreement is considered by the politicians of the two countries as an important step towards the solution of the territorial problem in the relations between Russia and Japan and, accordingly, the conclusion of a peace treaty between them.

During the current year, consultations were held between the two countries in various formats on the practical implementation of this agreement. Priority areas of bilateral cooperation were outlined, lists of specific projects were proposed from each side, and in the summer a delegation of Japanese officials and businessmen visited the southern Kuriles to familiarize themselves with the situation on the spot.

However, judging by everything, negotiations on joint management of Russia and Japan in the southern part of the Kuril Islands have been very difficult from the very beginning. The stumbling block was the question of what legislative base to implement this management. Russian officials have repeatedly stated that joint economic activities with Japan should be conducted in accordance with Russian law. However, this situation does not suit the Japanese side. According to her representatives, consent to this would mean Japan's recognition of Russian sovereignty over its northern territories.

As Tokyo suggests, joint activities on the disputed islands should be carried out not on the basis of Russian or Japanese laws, but within the framework of some special regime that would not harm the sovereignty of both countries over these islands. However, such an approach is unacceptable for Russia, because it would mean the unprecedented creation in the southern Kuriles of something like an extraterritorial enclave.

In order to accelerate the economic development of the Far Eastern region, the Russian government decided to create a network of priority development territories (TOR) there, the number of which has reached fifteen today. One of these territories was originally planned for the Kuril Islands. However, according to the statement of Deputy Prime Minister and Presidential Plenipotentiary in the Far Eastern Federal District Yuri Trutnev, its implementation was suspended due to the December agreement between Putin and Abe on joint economic activities in the southern Kuriles. Trutnev's statement made during his stay on Sakhalin in March this year testifies to the fact that the Russian-Japanese negotiations on the implementation of the agreement have gone not easily.

The Deputy Prime Minister, in particular, said: “While there are joint negotiations with the Japanese side on cooperation in the development of the Kuril Islands, we have suspended the creation of the Kurils ASEZ. At the same time, we will not wait much, if we see that there are no effective forms of interaction, but the conversations continue, which means that we will submit proposals to the government on the creation of a TOP. We know exactly where to develop, we can do it with our Japanese colleagues, we can do it without. There are no problems. "

On August 23, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed a decision to create a new Advanced Development Area (ASEZ) "South Kuriles". Medvedev noted that within the framework of the PDA in the Kuriles, fishing, infrastructure, and the construction industry will be developed. "This is such an additional impetus for the development of this very important part of the Sakhalin Oblast," the head of government stressed.

He also said that a document was signed amending the federal target program for the development of the Kuril Islands. According to Medvedev, in this way, the program was brought in line with the current parameters of economic development and gave "certain guidelines for the future." According to the Ministry for the Development of the Far East, private investment in the advanced development area in the Kuril Islands will amount to at least ten billion rubles.

The decision to create the South Kuriles ASEZ caused a wave of criticism in the Japanese media. On August 26, the Hokkaido Shimbun newspaper, which for obvious reasons pays most attention to the territorial problem in relations with Russia, published an editorial under the heading “A special zone has been created on four islands. It is necessary to strive for strict observance of the agreement of the heads of state ”. It says, in part:

“Russian Prime Minister Medvedev signed a decision that defines the northern territories as a special economic zone of his country -“ the territory of advanced development ”. The purpose of this is to develop the four islands, making it a prerequisite for Russia's right of control (over the islands). The joint economic activity that Abe and Putin agreed on makes a prerequisite for a “special system” (tokubetsu seido) that would not violate the legal positions of both parties. This special zone, by its content, contradicts the agreement of the heads of state. "

The newspaper also believes that if this problem remains unresolved, it will be impossible to concretize joint economic activities at the planned meeting of the leaders of Russia and Japan in Vladivostok. According to the publication, the prime minister should clarify the true intentions of the president and urge strict compliance with the agreement.

"Hokkaido Shimbun" believes that the signing of the decision on the establishment of the PDA by Medvedev, who is responsible for domestic policy, defines the creation of a zone on the four islands as an internal problem of the country. In the demonstration by Medvedev of a tough position on the territorial issue on the eve of the meeting between Putin and Abe in Vladivostok, the newspaper sees the calculation to hold the meeting of the leaders in a direction favorable to Russia.

The Hokkaido Shimbun also draws attention to the statement of the Minister for Development of the Far East Alexander Galushka that the Russian side cannot but raise the standard of living on the islands in anticipation of an agreement with Japan on joint economic activities. According to the publication, this means that it is possible that business will come to the islands from countries other than Japan. In addition, it sees in the minister's words a desire to put pressure on Japan, and to dilute its position regarding the legislative framework for joint economic activities in the northern territories. The Hokkaido Shimbun urge Japan to resist attempts to shake its position and to adhere to a principled position in negotiations.

It is characteristic that the publication criticizes the Japanese Prime Minister's administration for haste in negotiations with Russia, believing that it could lead to unjustified concessions from the Japanese side. As stated in the article, the calculation, apparently, is that in the conditions of a drop in the rating of the cabinet of ministers, some positive results in diplomacy with respect to Russia are needed, and therefore the Japanese government wants to get these results in Vladivostok.

However, according to the newspaper, the administration should not damage the interests of the people with its intentions. The upcoming meeting of the two leaders in Vladivostok will be the 19th in a row. However, if the prime minister cannot demand strict adherence to the agreement, then the sense of the accumulation of the number of negotiations between the two leaders will be in doubt. “We must be aware that the Prime Minister has come to a peak in his diplomacy towards Russia,” concludes the Hokkaido Shimbun.

The right-wing conservative newspaper "Sankei Shimbun" in its August 29 issue also published an editorial under the headline "Russia's special zone in the northern territories is unacceptable." According to the authors of the article, A. Galushka's statement that foreign investors will have the same benefits on the islands as Russian ones is aimed at attracting foreign capital and completely ignores Japanese sovereignty over them. According to the newspaper, the Abe administration should express its grave concern, pointing out that the prerequisite for Japanese-Russian cooperation has been lost. The publication believes that if you do not protest, demonstrating a readiness to interrupt consultations on joint economic activities, this will only encourage the Putin administration. In Vladivostok, Abe must tell Putin frankly that the special zone is unacceptable. The newspaper is confident that Russia initially has no right to occupy the northern territories with its troops and conduct economic activities there. One thing is necessary - the return of the islands taken from Japan.

The current special zone (TOR - V.K.), writes "Sankey Shimbun", suggests the use of Russian domestic legislation, which is incompatible with the Japanese position (the creation of a special regime - V.K.). The fact that the Putin administration on the eve of the meeting of the leaders of Japan and Russia has established a special zone is aimed at extracting economic benefits.

In conditions when there is no progress in negotiations on the return of territories, the idea of ​​joint economic activity arose. If we continue to present it as progress, then Russia, as it became obvious, will shake Japan's position. Thus, it will not be possible to get the support of the people for diplomatic negotiations - the mouthpiece of Japanese nationalist circles comes to the conclusion.

The largest Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun in the issue of 25 August is dedicated to the topic of creation of TOP "Southern Kuriles".

The article, in particular, says: "One cannot but pay attention to the recent step of Russia, because it is a unilateral action that runs counter to the spirit of joint economic activity, which the governments of Japan and Russia have agreed on." The problem, according to the authors of the publication, is that the special zone (TOP - V.K.) involves the application of Russian internal laws. The newspaper fears that Russia's recent move could destroy the bilateral relationship of trust that has been built in recent years.

Like other publications, Yomiuri Shimbun calls for the Japanese prime minister to firmly tell him about Japan's concern at the forthcoming meeting in Vladivostok with Putin and called for the cancellation of the special zone of the country. 

Further, the Japanese newspaper discusses the role of the Russian president in solving the problem. In her opinion, only Putin has the power to make the final decision on the projects of the special zone and the territorial problem by the Russian government.

In light of the upcoming presidential elections in Russia next year, Putin will be unable to make a political decision on the territorial issue for some time. On the other hand, Moscow has high hopes for strengthening economic ties with Japan in the face of continuing economic stagnation in the country, caused, among other factors, by sanctions from the United States and Europe.

Putin, for his part, may well be aware that if talks on joint economic activity fail, it will be difficult for his country to get full-scale economic cooperation from Japan - sums up the country's most massive newspaper.

According to the information of the same newspaper, reported on August 30, from September 4 to September 6, Nikolai Patrushev, aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Secretary of the Security Council, will be in Japan. According to the publication, Patrushev will meet with Japanese government officials, including Shotaro Yachi, head of the Japan National Security Council secretariat, to coordinate the agenda of the Japan-Russia summit, which will be held on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on September 6-7. Obviously, one of the topics of Patrushev's talks with Japanese representatives will be the problem of joint economic activities of Russia and Japan in the southern Kuriles. The outcome of these conversations will become clear already on September 7 at the meeting of the leaders of the two states.

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