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International relations

Russia demands Japan first accept its sovereignty over islands

Officials launch peace talks ahead of Abe-Putin summit on Jan. 22

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, far left, and Japanese counterpart Taro Kono, far right, met in Moscow on Monday.    © Reuters

MOSCOW -- Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov insisted Monday that Tokyo first recognize Moscow's sovereignty over long-disputed islands in the inaugural talks with Japanese counterpart Taro Kono toward negotiating a peace treaty to officially end World War II.

The ministers were seeking progress before a summit between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kono revealed Monday that the summit will be held Jan. 22 in Moscow. The foreign ministers plan to meet next in February on the sidelines of an international conference in Munich.

Kono urged advancing talks on a peace treaty at the start of Monday's meeting here.

"There is huge promise for Russia and Japan," he said. "We must form relations that optimize this potential."

Yet the meeting focused on the islands, which are administered by Moscow as the southern Kurils but claimed by Tokyo as the Northern Territories. Lavrov said that it would be difficult to make progress in the peace talks without Japan accepting the outcome of World War II, including Russia's "sovereignty over all the islands of the South Kuril Ridge."

Russia's "sovereignty over the islands is not subject to discussion," he said.

"This is our basic position, and without a step in this direction it is very difficult to count on any progress on other issues," he added. Lavrov also said that Japanese legislation designating the islands as the Northern Territories is "unacceptable."

The Russian foreign minister also said that the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956, which forms the basis for these negotiations, was signed before Tokyo's security pact with Washington took effect.

"We must consider the drastic change that has taken place in Japan's military alliance since then," Lavrov added.

Kono addressed Russia's demands regarding the islands in a news conference after the meeting.

"We clearly stated Japan's position," Kono told reporters. "There are areas that we do not agree on, of course, but we must find parts where we do through bilateral talks."

"There is no change in Japan's legal position," a foreign ministry official said.

Abe and Putin agreed in November to accelerate peace treaty negotiations based on the 1956 declaration, which mentions transferring two of the four islands -- the Habomai islets and Shikotan -- to Japan. Kono and Lavrov were named responsible for these discussions in December.

Japan likely will seek initially to have Habomai and Shikotan returned under the 1956 document. "We need Russia's understanding that the islanders' citizenship will be changed to Japanese," Abe told reporters on Jan. 4.

But Russia has increasingly resisted as Japan raises these hopes. Lavrov had begun Monday's meeting by calling on Japan to avoid "one-sided rhetoric."

Abe and Putin earlier had linked a peace treaty to economic cooperation over the islands, but work on a special system governing those projects has stalled. The leaders now plan to accelerate talks based on the 1956 declaration instead.

Takeo Mori, a Japanese senior deputy minister for foreign affairs, and Russian deputy foreign minister Igor Morgulov are the lead working-level negotiators. They attended Monday's meeting and will continue their discussions Tuesday.

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