Medvedev Could Care Less About Japan’s Reaction to His Visit to Kuril Islands

May 14, 2015 by

[This post was originally published in July 2012]

Demis-kurils-russian_namesAs discussed in my earlier news post, tensions remain high between Russia and Japan over the legal status of the four Southern Kuril islands: Etorofu (Iturup), Kunashiri (Kunashir), Shikotan, and the Habomei (Habomai). Japan claims these islands in accordance with the 1855 Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation, but the Soviet Union seized them at the end of World War II, and Russia still holds them. In 1956, a joint declaration by Japan and the Soviet Union stipulated that Shikotan and Habomai would be returned to Japan, but because Tokyo kept demanding the return of all four islands, the two sides were unable to sign a peace treaty to formally end World War II hostilities. Earlier this year, the Japanese government offered to negotiate the return of two rather than all four islands, in hopes that the proposed compromise might finally lead to a breakthrough in the decades-old territorial dispute. But now it is Russia that refuses to change the status quo.

During his four-day tour of the Russian Far East, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited the Kuril Islands, where he expressed Moscow’s official position: the Islands became part of the USSR as a result of Japan’s “full and unconditional surrender” at the end of World War II, and therefore Russia’s sovereignty over them is in accordance with the international law and cannot be doubted. Russian officials and historians refer to the San Francisco treaty whereby Japan renounced all claims to the Kuril Islands—which, curiously, the Soviet Union did not sign—and explain away the 1956 agreement as a mere declaration of intent, without the legal power of a treaty.

This is Medvedev’s second visit to the Kuril Islands; his first took place in 2010. During this latest trip, Medvedev visited the construction of a church in Yuzhno-Kurilsk, a settlement of about 6,000 people on Kunashir Island. When asked about the future of the islands by one of the workers, Medvedev responded: “This is our aboriginal land, we won’t give up a yard of it. The one who gives up any of his land provokes a storm”. But it may be the Russian Prime Minister himself who provoked a storm with his remarks, as the Japanese voiced “extreme regret” about the visit. However, Medvedev responded that he “could care less” about the Japanese reaction: “What do we have to discuss with them? The presence of the head of the Russian government on Russian territory? This goes too far,” he said. Russian officials also claimed that the visit is a sign of a renewed concern on the part of the government about the socio-economic situation on the islands, which remains difficult.

A perfect illustration of the socio-economic instability that plagues the islands is the tragic shooting incident that happened just hours before Prime Minister Medvedev’s arrival. An active duty private who served as an armed security guard at the Central Bank opened fire at three accountants working overtime, whom he was supposed to protect. Two of them were shot point-blank and died on the spot, while the third survived but remains in critical condition; the shooter then committed suicide. Police are investigating whether any money was stolen, but some reports blame the bloodbath on the soldier’s nervous breakdown. Some journalists call it Medvedev’s “bad karma” and recall a similar incident that happened during his previous visit to the Far East in 2010, whereby another soldier, whose wedding Medvedev attended just days before, shot himself on duty.

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