Territorial row in focus as Abe meets Putin

VLADIVOSTOK, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 5, 2019: Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a meeting on the sidelines of the 2019 Eastern Economic Forum at the Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU) on Russky Island. Mikhail Metzel/TASS Host Photo Agency. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

VLADIVOSTOK, Sep 5, 2019, Kyodo. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday with the aim of jump-starting stalled negotiations over a long-standing territorial dispute between their countries, reported The Mainichi.

The meeting in Vladivostok, in Russia’s Far East, is the 27th between the leaders, with Abe looking to leverage the relationship he has built with Putin to break the deadlock.

The disagreement over the sovereignty of four Russian-held islands lying off Hokkaido in northern Japan remains a major hurdle to Tokyo and Moscow signing a formal peace treaty 74 years after the end of World War II.

Abe and Putin agreed last year to accelerate peace treaty talks based on a 1956 joint declaration, but rounds of ministerial and working level negotiations have failed to bridge the gap between the countries regarding the dispute.

The joint declaration is crucial for Abe because it mentions Moscow handing over the two smaller islands — Shikotan and the Habomai islet group — to Tokyo.

The Soviet Union took control of the islands — collectively called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia — after Japan’s surrender in the war, in 1945.

But Moscow has recently hardened its stance on the issue. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev last month visited the largest of the islands, Etorofu, drawing protests from Tokyo.

Earlier Thursday, Putin hailed the opening of a seafood processing factory on Shikotan by sending a video message to a ceremony marking the start of operations, a move seen as flaunting Russia’s control of the islands.

Despite the lack of progress on the issue, Abe and Putin said after their previous meeting in June that they would move ahead with plans to conduct joint economic activities on the islands, with a pilot program for tourism to start in October.

“I welcome the fact that our agreement is being steadily implemented,” Abe said at the outset of Thursday’s meeting, held on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum.

Putin said bilateral relations “are stable and develop actively,” and that he looks forward to discussing future cooperation with the Japanese leader.

Abe was expected to encourage Putin to engage in dialogue with Europe, Japanese officials said, after Group of Seven leaders discussed in France, late last month, the divisive topic of Russia’s return to the multilateral framework.

Russia was expelled in 2014 amid international outrage over its annexation of Crimea.

Abe has sought to cultivate a personal relationship with Putin. Abe, who invited the Russian leader to his constituency in western Japan’s Yamaguchi Prefecture in 2016, often calls him “Vladimir” at a joint press conference, and has attended the forum every year since 2016.

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