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Japan PM to meet Putin in first visit for decade

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday for the first such top-level visit in a decade that aims to break years of stalemate in a territorial dispute dating from World War II.

The failure of the two sides since the 1950s to agree a peace treaty owing to the dispute over ownership of the Pacific Kuril islands chain has held up full potential of bilateral ties.

However since returning to power in December, Abe has made a priority of improving relations with Russia. Before leaving Tokyo, he reaffirmed his desire to restart stalled talks over the dispute.

“I would like to build a trusted personal relationship with President Putin,” Abe told reporters in Tokyo ahead of his departure for the three-day trip.

“I will work on boosting Japan-Russia relations so that this visit will mark a restart in stalled negotiations over a peace treaty,” Abe said.

Abe and Putin were expected to release a joint statement confirming they would restart territorial talks, a Japanese government source told Kyodo News.

Abe and Putin are due to hold one-on-one talks at the Kremlin, followed by meetings involving business delegations from both sides. They were then to give a joint news conference.

The last such top-level official visit was by then Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who travelled to Moscow to meet Putin in January 2003.

Former prime ministers Yasuo Fukada and Taro Aso visited in 2008 and 2009 for shorter, lower-level trips.

Abe’s visit is also taking place after an intriguing trip to Moscow in February by Abe’s close ally, the former prime minister Yoshiro Mori, who delivered a message from the new premier to Putin.

Abe is being accompanied by a business delegation of 120 people, the biggest ever such group to join a Japanese prime minister on a visit to Russia.

Japan is particularly interested in increasing its import of Russian energy resources as it seeks to diversify supplies in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster

Russia’s trade with Japan reached $32 billion in 2012. But Russia, despite its size and proximity, was only Japan’s 15th most important trading partner, in a sign of the unrealised potential of relations.

The dispute surrounds the southernmost four of the Kuril islands — known in Japan as the Northern Territories — which have been controlled by Moscow since they were seized by Soviet troops at Stalin’s behest in 1945 at the end of World War II.

The Kremlin said in a statement that Russia believed that “dialogue in the interests of arriving at a mutually acceptable solution must be held in a calm, respectful atmosphere.”

Yet there remains little hope of an immediate breakthrough, with Tokyo insisting the four islands currently inhabited by around 16,500 Russians are its territory and Moscow showing no hint of a compromise.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has twice visited the island of Kunashir, called Kunashiri in Japan, infuriating Tokyo.

Medvedev’s first visit to the island, which juts out past the northeastern tip of Japan’s Hokkaido island, in November 2010 — when he still held the post of president — was condemned by Tokyo as an “unforgivable outrage”.

One solution mooted in the past could involve Russia ceding control of the two smallest islands of Shikotan and Khabomai and keeping the much larger Kunashir and Iturup (know as Etorofu in Japan).

But even this would require massive concessions from both sides that would be unacceptable for nationalists.

After Russia, Abe was due to visit Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey for talks with leaders there.