By Ilya Akdemir
On December 15th, 2016, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin will pay a visit to Japan. The discussions between President Putin and Prime Minister Abe will primarily concern trade and other issues of bilateral relations. But in recent weeks, there have been indicators from both Japanese and the Russian sources that new steps are being taken to resolve the longstanding territorial dispute between the two countries over the Kuril Islands.
Situated north of Japan’s Hokkaido Prefecture, the Kuril Islands are a chain of volcanic islands that extend 1200 km from Japan’s northern Hokkaido Prefecture to Russia’s Kamchatka Region. Although a part of Russia’s Sakhalin Oblast, the four southernmost islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and Habomai off the coast of Hokkaido Prefecture – known as the four South Kuril Islands – are claimed by both Russia and Japan. Apart from being rich in resources, the islands form a strategically important gateway to Russia’s resource-rich Far Eastern regions and the Sea of Okhotsk.
The origins of the territorial dispute can be traced all the way back to the end of the Second World War. Although the war ended in 1945 with the victory of the Allied forces, the USSR refused to sign the 1951 Peace Treaty of San Francisco, which meant that, legally, the Soviet Union has had no formal peace treaty with Japan.
To restore relations, in 1956 USSR and Japan signed a Joint Declaration, which ended the state of war between the two states. However, it’s important to note that under international law this Joint Declaration did not necessarily constitute a formal peace treaty – indeed, Article 9 of the Joint Declaration specifically states that “the USSR and Japan agree to continue, after the restoration of normal diplomatic relations between the USSR and Japan, negotiations for the conclusion of a Peace Treaty.” Considering the Russian Federation is the legal successor to USSR under the Alma-Ata Protocol and Belavezha Accords of 1991, this lack of formal peace has remained a part of Russia-Japan relations to this day.
The Kuril Islands were an important element in the Soviet Union’s decision to refuse to sign the 1951 Peace Treaty. This is best demonstrated by then Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko’s statement, which outlined USSR’s key objections to the Peace Treaty, one of which was the issue of sovereignty over Kuril Islands and the nearby South Sakhalin. Gromyko stated that “the draft confines itself to a mere mention of the renunciation by Japan of rights, title and claims to these territories and makes no mention of the historic appurtenance of these territories and the indisputable obligation on the part of Japan to recognize the sovereignty of the Soviet Union over these parts of the territory of the USSR.”