Islands claimed by Japan will be Russia's forever: Kremlin
A fierce war of words between Russia and Japan over four disputed islands escalated to an unprecedented level Monday after the Kremlin vowed never to give up the chain despite pressure from Tokyo.
The deeply divisive issue flared again when Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan used a national remembrance day to call President Dmitry Medvedev's recent visit to the Kuril Islands -- known as the Northern Territories in Japan -- an "unforgivable outrage".
Japan's centre-left prime minister delivered his stark comments at a Tokyo rally demanding the islands' return -- an event that received broad media play in Moscow because it featured the burning of a Russian tricolour flag.
Russia delivered an immediate toughly-worded response that saw Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accuse Kan of pandering to Japanese nationalists.
Lavrov's rebuke was swiftly followed by a markedly uncompromising Kremlin statement ratcheting up the rhetoric and vowing that Russia would never alter its stance on the land.
"The sovereignty of the Russian Federation in respect to the Kuril Islands will not be subject to any review -- either today or tomorrow," Russian news agencies quoted Medvedev's top foreign policy advisor Sergei Prikhodko as saying.
The latest escalation came as Japan honoured Northern Territories Day -- an official event marking the conclusion of an 1855 treaty with Russia that Tokyo says confirmed that the four islands were Japanese territory.
"These expressions are clearly undiplomatic," Lavrov said in reference to Kan's comments before adding that any talks on the islands must proceed from Japan's "unconditional recognition of the outcome of World War II."
The sharp exchange cast a pall over what had already promised to be a delicate meeting this week in Moscow between Lavrov and Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara.
Japan's top diplomat vowed earlier Monday to use his Moscow visit to seek the islands' return "even if it costs me my political career."
The windswept Kurils chain was seized from Japan by the Soviet army in 1945, but Tokyo still claims the four islands closest to the Japanese mainland.
The islands are home to just 19,000 people but are rich in gold and silver and lie in waters abundant in marine life.
Moscow and Tokyo have spent years holding unproductive talks over an issue that has soured trade ties and prevented the two neighbours from signing a formal treaty ending World War II.
A series of gloomy comments in Moscow suggested that bilateral ties were headed for yet another tough spell.
"The official authorities of Japan have spent the past two or three years aligning their rhetoric with extremist opinions," said Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign affairs committee at the Russian parliament's lower house.
"If this trend continues, we can expect a serious complication of Russian-Japanese relations," ITAR-ITASS quoted him as saying.
Medvedev's unprecedented trip to one of the disputed islands in November was followed by a series of similar visits by other Russian officials.
They culminated last week with a tour of two of the islands by Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.
The Kommersant business daily said Serdyukov's visit was prompted by embarrassment at Medvedev's trip in which he was seen "against the backdrop of tank turrets originally produced in the 1940s."
The respected daily said Serdyukov's trip was designed to signal Moscow's intention to update the local military division's ageing equipment rather than expand its size.
Analysts say that Russia and Japan had in previous years essentially agreed to disagree over the islands while trying to boost economic ties.
Japanese firms have been tapped as potential partners in new natural gas projects being planned for Russia's Sakhalin Island on the country's Pacific coast.
Lavrov said Russia was ready to continue such contacts despite the latest war of words.
"We are still ready, as we have said on many occasions before, to cooperate in the closest manner possible with our Japanese neighbours in the implementation of specific projects in this region," the Russian foreign minister said.
Medvedev said in December that the two countries could jointly create a free economic zone on the Kurils.
© 2011 AFP