Archive for November 2nd, 2010

02
Nov
10

Medvedev angers Japanese government

Japanese officials have reacted angrily to a visit monday by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to a group of disputed, mineral-rich islands seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan told Japan’s parliament that Medvedev’s trip to Kunashir — the second largest of the four islands known in Russia as the Southern Kurils and in Japan as the Northern Territories — was “very regrettable,” as the “northern islands are part of our country’s territory,” the BBC reported. Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara summoned Russia’s ambassador to Tokyo and warned that any visit to the islands would “hurt the feelings of the Japanese people.”

The archipelago, which sits just north of Japan’s main island of Hokkaido, is seen by Japan as part of its historical territory, unjustly grabbed by the Soviets in 1945. Russia, however, regards the island chain as a symbol of its victory during World War II, and sees no reason why it should give up possession of a legitimately acquired prize. That island dispute has prevented the two countries from ever signing a formal peace treaty in the 65 years since the end of World War II.

Russian ambassador Mikhail Bely has shaken off criticism of the visit, telling reporters after the meeting in Tokyo that he “told him [Maehara] that it is Russia’s domestic issue. I requested Japan to deal with it cool-headedly and in a balanced manner,” Agence France-Presse reported. And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov condemned Japan’s reaction as “unacceptable,” noted the BBC, stating that the Russian president could visit “Russian land” whenever he wanted.

During his visit to the island chain, the first ever by a Russian or Soviet leader, Medvedev promised to pump money into the impoverished territory, which is home to just 18,000 people but offers access to rich fisheries and promising oil and gas fields. “We want people to remain here,” he said, according to Russia Today. “Development here is important. We will definitely be investing money here.”

The three and a half hour visit to Kunashir provided an opportunity for Medvedev to toughen up his image at home, where he is traditionally seen as more liberal than his mentor and predecessor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. It is thought that the more popular of the two leaders will stand as the candidate for the ruling United Russia party in the 2012 presidential elections. A recent poll by Russia’s Levada Center suggests that Medvedev is catching up with his macho mentor: His approval ratings have grown 3 percent since September to 76, while Putin’s remain at 77 percent.

The trip also reflects the growing importance of the Far East for Russia, which is keen to exploit the vast reserves of hydrocarbons under the ocean floor and expand trade links with Asia’s booming economies.

This dispute is expected to add yet another source of territorial tension to the upcoming summit of Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation nations, due to be held in Japan’s eastern port city of Yokohama later this month. Ties between China and Japan have been frosty since a Chinese fishing boat captain was detained last month for allegedly ramming Japanese coast guard vessels near the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Although the captain has since been sent back to China without charge, ongoing frictions over the archipelago — known in China as the Diaoyu Islands — led to Beijing scrapping a planned meeting Oct. 29 between Kan and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Hanoi, Vietnam, during a regional summit.

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