Russia slams 'unacceptable' Japan in islands crisis

11th February 2011, Comments 0 comments

Moscow and Tokyo's top diplomats locked horns Friday in bruising talks over a territorial dispute, with the Russian foreign minister telling his counterpart that Japan's behaviour was unacceptable.

The talks between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Japanese counterpart Seiji Maehara sought to quell tensions in the flaring row over the Kuril islands but the start could not have been more icy.

"To be honest, I expected to receive you in Moscow against a better backdrop," a stern-looking Lavrov said as he opened the talks in Moscow.

"Your visit comes against the background of a series of completely unacceptable actions," he added.

Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan had called President Dmitry Medvedev's unprecedented visit to the Kuril islands in November an "unforgivable outrage" while a rifle bullet was mailed to the Russian embassy in Japan.

"But this makes your visit all the more timely," said Lavrov. "It is time to have an honest discussion of the situation. We are ready to take sequential steps to advance our relations."

Maehara did not directly respond to Lavrov's comments saying that "we would like to promote a variety of subjects to develop our relationship further."

Amid a spiralling row, Medvedev this week ordered the deployment of extra weaponry on the disputed islands and declared them to be an "inseparable" part of Russia.

Russian media said that unusually for a visit by a top diplomat from a major industrialised power, Maehara was not going to be granted a meeting with Medvedev or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The decades-long impasse has prevented the signature of a formal peace treaty and kept Japanese investments to a minimum in Russia's under-developed Far East.

"The Japanese side is focusing in these talks on economic cooperation," a source in the Japanese delegation told AFP, warning it would be unlikely the two sides would agree a date for Kan to visit Russia.

Medvedev relaunched the Kurils debate in November by paying an unprecedented visit to a region that has no major industry besides fishing.

Yet it has emerged as a central part of Medvedev's effort to exert a strong image on the eve of elections in 2012 and his trip has been followed by a series of similar visits by senior regional and economic officials.

"Regardless of how many (Russian) senior officials go there and who goes there, and whether it increases or decreases its military presence, the legal value (of Russia's claim) does not change," Maehara said ahead of the visit.

"Our resolve remains absolutely unwavering."

"Such an attitude won't do much to quell tensions, and "one should not expect any progress from his visit," Valery Kistanov, who heads the Japan Institute in the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily Friday.

The two sides had used previous meetings to gloss over the dispute and focus on more immediate trade relations in the Pacific region.

Japan is interested in securing new natural gas supplies and playing a broader role in energy projects on Russia's Sakhalin Island.

Medvedev for his part has proposed making the Kurils into a free trade zone that attracts Japanese investments on favorable terms.

The dispute surrounds the southernmost four islands -- known in Russian as Iturup, Shikotan, Habomai and Kunashir -- which are still claimed by Tokyo and collectively known in Japan as the Northern Territories.

Japan does not contest Russia's sovereignty over the northernmost islands but has repeatedly demanded the return of the other four. Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov last week angered Japan by visiting Iturup and Kunashir.

© 2011 AFP

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