Russia and Japan wage war of words over islands

7th February 2011, Comments 0 comments

Russia and Japan engaged in a heated war of words Monday over a disputed island chain that the Kremlin vowed to keep forever despite the 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 comments at a 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 to both the rallies and Kan's address.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the Japanese prime minister of pandering to nationalist interests and noted that any talks over the islands must be based on Tokyo's "unconditional recognition of the outcome of World War II."

"These expressions are clearly undiplomatic," Lavrov said in reference to Kan's comments.

The sharp exchange cast a pall over what had already promised to be a delicate meeting next Friday in Moscow between Lavrov and Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara.

Japan's top diplomat vowed Monday to use the Moscow talks to seek the islands' return "even if it costs me my political career."

He also pledged an "all-out effort to convey Japan's position" to Russia.

Speaking later in the day, Medvedev's top foreign policy advisor ratched up the rhetoric even further, saying Moscow would never agree to revisit the status of the islands.

"The sovereignty of the Russian Federation in respect to the Kuril Islands will not be subject to any review -- either today or tomorrow," news agencies quoted 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 are Japanese territory.

The windswept chain was claimed by the Soviet army in 1945 and has since remained a point of contention that has soured trade ties and prevented the signing of a formal treaty ending World War II.

Medvedev's unprecedented trip to one of the islands was followed by a series of such visits to the chain by other Russian officials.

They culminated last week with a tour of two of the four islands by Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.

The Kommersant business daily said Serdyukov's visit was prompted by embarassment at Medvedev's original November 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.

In some of Russia's most poignant comments Monday, Lavrov accused the Japanese government of using the country's nationalist organisations to heighten tensions with Russia by boosting their financing.

"What is especially sad and regrettable is that the Japanese government not only finances these non-governmental organisations, but has also in the past year increased such financing," he said.

Yet Lavrov also stressed that Russia wanted broader economic and diplomatic relations with Japan -- a position underscored in the past few days by both countries' leaders.

"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," said Lavrov.

© 2011 AFP

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