Amid their anger over Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to a disputed island off Hokkaido, Japanese officials were trying to determine the trip’s purpose and the timing, which “could not have been worse.”
Medvedev landed on Kunashiri, one of the islands in the Northern Territories, only weeks after Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to re-energize working-level negotiations over the islands that are controlled by Russia.
Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba criticized the Medvedev visit for throwing cold water on efforts to create a better atmosphere for bilateral relations.
Medvedev emphasized that the island is part of Russian territory and that Moscow has no intention of handing it over to Japan, according to Russia's Novosti news agency. In 2010, when he was Russian president, Medvedev became the first Russian leader to visit Kunashiri.
One Russian expert said Medvedev’s second visit to the island could be seen as a message to the Russian audience that Moscow is not about to give up its territorial claims to Kunashiri and Etorofu, another island in the disputed chain.
The Russian prime minister’s plan to visit Etorofu on his trip to the Far East was postponed due to bad weather. He did, however, make good on his promise to land on Kunashiri for the second time.
Some Japanese officials said the Kunashiri visit could symbolize how Putin and Medvedev plan to divide up their roles.
Putin, who would have the final say in diplomatic negotiations, told The Asahi Shimbun and other media organizations in March that he would like to resolve the dispute over the Northern Territories.
Although he has no direct role in foreign affairs, Medvedev could serve as a lightning rod for criticism from Japan in relation to the Northern Territories.
A Russian diplomatic source said Medvedev had to show the Russian public that he was taking a strong stance on the Northern Territories because his political standing is not solid.
Putin has also made clear that developing the Russian Far East was a top priority and that Moscow wants Japanese investment and technology for that process.
With such consideration going toward Japan, the Russian government must also show the general public that their sentiments toward the Northern Territories will not be ignored.
The Medvedev visit may have been a sign to local government officials that Moscow has not forgotten the islands, where economic development has not kept pace with the rest of Russia.
Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Kenichiro Sasae called Russian Ambassador Yevgenny Afanasiyev to the Foreign Ministry on July 3 to lodge a formal protest over Medvedev’s trip.
The ambassador said, "We are emphasizing a forward-looking trend in bilateral relations."
According to a diplomatic source in Moscow, Afanasiyev also said that Russia was prepared to further develop ties with Japan, but he emphasized that Russian leaders have the right to travel unconditionally within Russia.
Noda and Putin agreed in June to have Genba visit Russia this summer to resume negotiations on the Northern Territories. Japanese government officials also want Noda to visit Russia before the end of the year.
For those reasons, a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said about Medvedev's visit, "The timing could not have been worse since the two leaders issued instructions in the June meeting to begin negotiations."
Still, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed hope on July 3 that a meeting with Genba could be held in the near future in Russia as originally planned.
(This article was compiled from reports by Hideki Soejima, Shigeki Tosa and Daisuke Nishimura.)
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