Medvedev's stopover on disputed Pacific island stirs trouble with Japan


Four islands are at the centre of a feud preventing Russia and Japan from signing a peace treaty

WHEN RUSSIA’S prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, stepped out of his aircraft some 7,000km and nine time zones away from Moscow on to the volcanic island of Kunashir yesterday, he reignited a diplomatic row with Japan.

Kunashir is one of four disputed islands in the Pacific Ocean claimed by both countries. Known to Russia as the Kuril Islands and to Japan as the Northern Territories, the islands are at the centre of a territorial feud that has prevented the two from signing a peace treaty to mark the end of the second World War.

“This is a very important part of Sakhalin and Russian land,” Medvedev said yesterday, on a four-day trip to Russia’s far east aimed at boosting economic development in this sparsely populated region. “Control is not not only in absentia . . . you need to visit the islands.” Japan’s foreign minister Koichiro Gemba said Medvedev’s visit had poured a “tub of cold water” over relations between the two countries.

Situated between Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula and the Japanese island of Hokkaido, the islands are rich in fish and birdlife and thought to contain natural gas. But more than bird-watching rights are at stake, with national pride making compromise difficult. The Soviet Union took the islands in 1945, and 89 per cent of Russia’s population is against ceding them to Japan.

Japan, which ruled the islands for 165 years before the Soviets arrived, has begun to mark “Northern Territories day” on February 7th, to raise awareness of its claim.

In 2010 Medvedev became the first Russian leader to visit the islands, described by Japan’s then prime minister as “an unforgivable outrage”. Medvedev, then Russia’s president, followed this up by announcing the dispatch of surface-to-air missiles to the islands to defend Russian sovereignty.

After the chaos of the post-Soviet collapse, Russia wants to show it is a serious player in the Asia-Pacific region.

“The state displayed tremendous extravagance during the disintegration of the country and the subsequent economic turmoil. We are now paying the price for this,” Medvedev said on Monday at meeting on developing the region.

Russia’s far east occupies a third of its territory, but only six million people live there.

The region, encompassing the former Soviet gulag city of Magadan, has seen its population decline more sharply than the rest of Russia. Poor infrastructure and a fierce subarctic climate in many parts mean that a third of settlements cannot be reached by paved roads.

The Russian government says it has spent 300 billion rubles (€7.4 billion) in the last five years on developing the region, including building roads and subsidising air fares. In September, Vladivostok will play host to the Asia-Pacific summit, the trigger for building one of the world’s longest suspension bridges, which opened on Monday. Russia is also afraid of losing out to a booming China across the border.

Russian leaders have realised that the country’s most serious geopolitical challenge this century is in the east, Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, wrote in a recent paper on Sino-Russian relations.

“Without Siberia and the Pacific coast, Russia as the world has known it for over 360 years would cease to exist, the country would essentially be reduced to Muscovy and come to resemble another Ukraine.”

Medvedev said the Kuril Islands had to be a priority in wider government programmes to develop Russia’s far east.

Commentators have been perplexed by his visit, especially after Japan and Russia agreed to resume talks on the islands at the G20 summit in June.

Fyodor Lukanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, told Radio Echo Moskvi, that Medvedev’s visit was hard to understand when relations with Japan were improving.

“Medvedev’s first visit as president in 2010 had a point. Because then it was absolutely necessary to recall that Russia cared about this extremely faraway region,” Lukanov said.

“But why go again when there will be no practical benefit?”