Russia toughens its stance in islands dispute with Japan

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s top diplomat yesterday threw cold water on Tokyo’s hopes for a quick return of disputed islands in the Pacific, warning Japan that it must recognise them as part of Russia’s territory as a starting point for talks.

The stern statement from Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, which followed the talks with his Japanese counterpart Taro Kono, appeared to reflect Moscow’s efforts to temper Japanese expectations of an imminent deal.

It sets a tough stage for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip to Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin later this month. Abe has recently voiced hope that this year will mark a breakthrough in solving the territorial dispute and spoke about an imminent change in the islands’ status — remarks that angered Moscow.

“Russia’s sovereignty over the islands isn’t subject to discussion. They are part of the territory of the Russian Federation,” Lavrov told reporters, noting that the United Nations (UN) Charter supports Moscow’s ownership of them.

Speaking at the start of the talks, Kono emphasised that the two countries need to solve the territorial problem to set stage for expanding their economic and other ties.

But reflecting sharp differences at the talks, the Japanese delegation has scheduled a separate briefing later in the day.

The Soviet Union took the four southernmost Kuril Islands during the final days of World War II.

Japan asserts territorial rights to the islands, which it calls the Northern Territories, and the dispute has kept both countries from signing a peace treaty.

Putin and Abe agreed in November to accelerate negotiations based on a 1956 Soviet proposal to return two of the islands to Japan, but Lavrov’s somber tone indicated that Japanese expectations of a quick breakthrough were premature.

Abe’s optimism had raised concerns in Russian nationalist circles and fuelled criticism of the Kremlin.

In an apparent attempt to contain the damage, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the Japanese ambassador to warn Tokyo not to “artificially incite the atmosphere regarding the peace treaty problem and try to enforce its own scenario of settling the issue”.