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Analysis & Opinion
03.11.10 Archipelago Electioneering
By Tom Balmforth

President Dmitry Medvedev’s trip to the all-but-forgotten Kuril Islands in the Pacific Ocean, has stirred up a diplomatic debacle between Russia and Japan ahead of a key economic summit involving the two trade partners. It is hard to imagine Medvedev went to 8000 populous island of Kunashir to shore up his electorate, but it is also hard to see his gesture as anything but a provocation to Tokyo. Even more so after hints that he will visit the remaining three South Kuril Islands. But despite risking a phase of sluggish bilateral trade with Japan and possibly forfeiting further Japanese investment, Medvedev may have scored a political victory.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s trip to the desolate Kunashir Island is a “domestic matter” because it is Russian territory, insisted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday. His comments came in the wake of Medvedev’s visit, which was the first ever by a Russian head of state to the disputed territory and provoked Tokyo to temporarily recall its ambassador from Moscow.

Russian papers across the board, including the influential Kommersant daily, are referring to a “serious scandal” arising between Japan and Russia, but Moscow’s response has been one of defiant nonchalance. Not only has Russia not responded by withdrawing its ambassador to Tokyo, but Lavrov also said that Medvedev may visit the remaining three islands at the center of the territorial dispute. Japan today officially responded by warning Russia against further visits.

But Russian officials squarely blame Tokyo for the political fiasco, now that pundits are speculating it will affect the country’s close economic ties. “The Japanese cooked up this mess, now they can face up to it….we seriously are interested in normal relations with Japan, and we are not provoking these scandals,” Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the State Duma Committee on Foreign Affairs, told Rossiya 24 television last night.

The 1300 km volcanic archipelago known as the Kuril Islands has been part of Russia’s Sakhalin Region since Soviet troops invaded former Japanese territory in the death throes of the Second World War. Japan has never recognized Russia’s claim to the southernmost four islands, which Tokyo calls its “Northern Territories” and as a result the two sides never signed a peace treaty after the Second World War.

Tokyo says that the latest turn in the conflict, which had been quiet since Lavrov visited the Kuril Islands in 2007, could hamper economic agreements being secured at the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation summit (APEC) slated for November 13 to 14 this year.

"Japan and Russia have deep ties when it comes to energy and natural resources development," Reuters quoted Japanese Economic Minister Banri Kaieda as saying on Tuesday. "I'm worried about the impact on economic relations from the Russian president's visit to the Northern Territories." According to local media, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan is scheduled to meet Medvedev on the sidelines of APEC in less than a fortnight.

Some analysts question whether Russo-Japanese trade will suffer. Valeri Kistanov, the head of the Institute for Japan Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, pointed to a similarly contentious territorial dispute in the Sino-Japanese relationship as an example of how economic ties supersede political spats for Tokyo. Despite the rift between China and Japan, which widened after Japan detained the captain of a Chinese trawler near disputed territory in September, bilateral trade continues apace and moreover dwarfs bilateral trade between Russia and Japan.

Kistanov said that Medvedev deliberately chose to take a firm stance on the Kuril Islands ahead of the economic summit so as not to catch the Japanese off guard. “I think Medvedev firmly decided to go to show clearly that he is the Russian president and has the right to go anywhere,” said Kistanov. “It was done purposefully before his trip to APEC so as not to irritate the Japanese at the summit,” he said.

But other analysts questioned the merits of revisiting the issue so provocatively, given that Russia’s foreign policy is bent toward attracting foreign investment in order to modernize its resource-based economy. “I honestly don’t understand why Medvedev went in so provocatively because in a way they need Japanese money for modernization. Also Russia as we have seen is very keen to integrate into the global economic community. Asia is an interesting alternative to Europe and to integration to the West,” said Alexander Rahr, Director of the Berthold Beitz Center for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia, a Berlin-based think tank.

At an international level, the trip is puzzling but Medvedev may have scored political points in the eyes of those who subscribe to the belief that there is real political competition between Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Medvedev. “Perhaps Medvedev wanted to show how sovereign he is,” said Rahr. “There is an election campaign that is starting definitely between Medvedev and Putin. Medvedev has scored with this policy very well nationally. That shouldn’t be forgotten. It was an internal move, rather than a foreign political one.”

Japanese ambassador Masaharo Kono took exactly this line upon his arrival to Japan from Moscow. “The benefits of this visit for Russia in terms of Russian-Japanese relations is not evident. Most likely, his aim was not as much exerting influence on Japan on the question of the islands, so much as weighing domestically in raising the profile of the president,” Gazeta.Ru quoted Kono as saying.

Lavrov said that one of Medvedev’s main reasons for visiting the neglected islands where there is still not one meter of tarmac roads was to check up on the progress of a 2007 federal plan to inject 19 billion rubles into the development of the Kuril Islands by 2015, Kommersant reported today. It is still unclear whether Medvedev’s trip will bring an end to years of neglect on the sparsely populated islands adjacent to overpopulated Japan.

But in terms of his own political profile Medvedev may have scored a domestic victory during a visit, which was barely registered in much of the world. “This is evidence that he is a powerful president…in my personal opinion this is an ambitious, young leader. He will go into history as the first Russian leader to visit the region,” said Kistanov.
The source
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