Japan and Russia clash over island dispute

By Jen McClure

The disputed islands

Russian President, Dimitri Medvedev on Monday became the first Russian leader to visit the disputed Kuril Islands that lie north of Hokkaido, Japan. 

Medvedev’s visit has sparked a fresh debate over the ownership of the disputed islands. The Kurils are part of an archipelago that stretches from the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Russia to Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido.  The remote islands are home to only around 20,000 people, but grant access to prize fisheries and promising oil and gas fields.

Japanese Prime Minister, Naoto Kan called the trip “regrettable.” Separately, Japanese Foreign Minister, Seiji Maehara had previously warned that any visit would “hurt the feelings of the Japanese people.”

The islands were seized by Soviet troops during the aftermath of World War II and  have been cause for diplomatic concern ever since.  Japan’s dispute with Russia has divided the two countries for more than half a century, preventing them from signing a formal peace treaty to conclude World War II.

During the trip, Medvedev visited a kindergarten, a power station and a fishery, promising greater investment in the region.  He said, while visiting a family on the island, “We want people to remain here. Development is important here. We will definitely be investing money here.”  Later, Medvedev commented ,“There are so many beautiful places in Russia!”on his TwitPic page, under a photograph he had taken during his visit to the island.

Medvedev on the island

Diplomatic ties between Japan and Russia have been temporarily severed as Japan  recalled its ambassador from Moscow.  In response to the Japanese recalling their ambassador, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, claimed Tokyo’s “strong reaction was unacceptable.” He continued, “I don’t think we plan any steps on our side because we never undertook anything that would worsen our relations with Japan,” 

Russia has been left confused by the Japanese response. “It is our land,” said Mr. Lavrov, who promised to summon Tokyo’s ambassador to a personal meeting in Moscow “to once again confirm our position with all clarity and lack of ambiguity.”

Medvedev’s visit comes only weeks before the Asia Pacific Economic Co-Operation summit being held in Japan.  Medvedev is due to meet Japanese Prime Minister, Naoto Kan.  When asked if this meeting will still go ahead, Japanese foreign minister, Maehara commented, “We will say what we ought to say, but our intention to aim for settling the territorial dispute with Russia and conclude a bilateral peace treaty to boost our two nations’ economic ties remains unchanged.”

Economic ties could be at stake over the dispute.  Japanese Economic Minister, Banri Kaieda commented, “Japan and Russia have deep ties when it comes to energy and natural resources development”.

Russia has no plans to succeed the territory and Medvedev has promised the region future visits.   The visit has shown Medvedev’s strong domestic agenda and his approval ratings are, for the first time, equal to those of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ahead of the country’s 2012 Presidential election.