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Russia, Japan vow new push to end island dispute

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged Monday to renew efforts to find a solution to a decades-long territorial row that has prevented the two sides from signing a World War II peace treaty.

After two hours of talks in the Kremlin, they agreed to order their foreign ministers to reopen talks on finding options for a solution that could be presented to the leaders.

Abe, making the first high-level official visit by a Japanese prime minister to Moscow in a decade, hailed the outcome as a “great result” and said he had succeeded in building a strong bond with the Russian leader.

A joint declaration by the two leaders agreed it was “abnormal” their countries had not signed a peace treaty 67 years after the end of World War II.

They expressed determination to overcome “the existing differences” on the islands dispute through talks although there was no concrete suggestion of what solution could end the years of deadlock.

The dispute surrounds the southernmost four of the Kuril islands — known in Japan as the Northern Territories — which have been controlled by Moscow since the end of World War II but are still claimed by Tokyo.

During lunch, Abe gave Putin a ski suit and a set of new skis, according to Japanese officials. Putin gave Abe a bottle of 1855 vintage wine, the year when the first Japanese-Russian friendship treaty was signed.

Analysts say economic cooperation between Russia and Japan has been stymied by their failure since the 1950s to agree a peace treaty.

But since returning to power in December, Abe has made improving relations with Russia a priority and given rise to cautious hope by backing the resumption of stalled talks on a solution.

The last such top-level official visit to Russia was by then prime minister Junichiro Koizumi in January 2003. Former prime ministers Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso visited in 2008 and 2009 for shorter, lower-level trips.

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 in 2011.

Russia’s trade with Japan reached $32 billion (24 billion euros) last year. 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.

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.

“It does not mean that we will solve everything tomorrow if the problem has not been solved for the past 67 years,” Putin said. “We did not create this problem — we inherited it from the past.

“But at least, we will continue work on this complex issue, but one that is so important for both sides.”

During a briefing later Monday, Japanese officials stressed the talks were successful, even though the leaders did not address the precise modalities of a solution like the number of islands.

“It should give a new thrust to Japan-Russia relations,” Yukata Yokoi, a spokesman for the Japanese foreign ministry, told reporters.

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 (known as Kunishiri and Etorofu in Japan).

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