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2009年2月 1日 (日)



--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 30(IHT/Asahi: January 31,2009)

EDITORIAL: Visa-free exchanges


A Japanese mission aboard a ship carrying humanitarian aid supplies to Kunashiri island, part of the disputed Northern Territories, turned back to Nemuro, Hokkaido, on Thursday without landing on the island. Russian officials refused land permission to the group after its members balked at producing disembarkation cards. The members of the mission rationalized that conceding to the demand would be tantamount to accepting Russia's sovereignty over the islands.


The humanitarian aid program started in 1994 under an agreement between Japan and Russia, which claims sovereignty over the islands seized by Soviet troops during the closing days of World War II. The agreement says the program will not in any way undermine the legal positions of the two countries. It allows Japanese missions to visit the four islands without passports or visas.


Tokyo and Moscow initially agreed during the Soviet era on visa-free visits to the islands for the humanitarian purpose of allowing former residents and their relatives to attend to the graves of ancestors on the islands. The scope of the program has been expanded gradually to other areas.


The formula has been applied to mutual visits by former islanders and Russian residents of the islands to promote mutual understanding. It is also applied to visits for humanitarian assistance and scientific research. A cumulative total of 8,300 Japanese visited the islands by the end of 2007.


This approach has also been adopted for fishing in waters around the islands. The two countries have established a framework that allows Japanese fishing boats to operate in the region without any fear of being captured by the Russian authorities. In addition, the two countries have been discussing ways to enable joint economic activities on these islands.


Then all of a sudden, Russia demanded that Japanese visitors produce embarkation and disembarkation cards, citing a revision to a domestic law. This is in effect a unilateral change to the procedure which the two countries agreed upon and is unacceptable for Japan.


It is not yet clear whether Russia intends to stop all visa-free visits to the islands, including visits to graves. But the move has undoubtedly splashed cold water on the bilateral efforts made so far to ease tensions between the two countries over the four disputed islands.


Behind Moscow's action is friction between its Foreign Ministry, which is in charge of territorial negotiations, and its Federal Migration Service, which is responsible for immigration control. The two governments should figure out ways to reopen exchanges concerning the islands through cool-headed talks while respecting the principle that both sides avoid undermining the other's official position on the territorial issue.


In a recent telephone conversation with Prime Minister Taro Aso, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev proposed that the two leaders meet in mid-February on the far eastern Russian island of Sakhalin. Medvedev expressed his desire to enhance Japan-Russia relations, saying he wanted to discuss all bilateral issues with Aso. The two countries are also laying the groundwork for a visit to Japan by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, possibly this spring.


Russia is apparently becoming more eager to expand ties with Japan because of the sharp drops of raw materials prices and the dramatic global economic downturn. Russia needs Japan's money and technology to develop its far eastern regions including Siberia. This is the country's policy priority. Russia's diplomatic overtures to Japan also appear to reflect its ambition to bolster its presence in the Asia-Pacific region, where China is rapidly increasing its influence.


No matter how Moscow displays its enthusiasm about improving its ties with Tokyo, though, it only augments Japan's distrust of Russia if it takes a step that destroys what has been built through years of exchanges. Russian leaders need to understand this clearly.



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