The Japan-Russo Northern Territories Negotiation: III. Abe Cannot Buy the Territory from “Democratic” Russia

Third, I have to argue that Japan’s basic strategy to substantially buy the territory in exchange for the massive economic assistance is doomed to fail.

Historically, there were cases where the nations traded territories. Napoleon sold French Louisiana to the United States in 1803. Russian Alexander II sold Alaska in 1867. But these examples fundamentally differ from the Northern Territories. French Louisiana and Alaska in the 19th century were not very important both economically and strategically. Napoleon understood that the Great Britain would sooner or later take over Louisiana. They were both remote colonies and the titles to them were not really the subjects to nationalism. Two dictators did not really have to care how their people received their own decision.

The Northern Territories are strongly embedded with nationalism not only in Japan but also in Russia. The percentage of Russian people who oppose the return of four islands to Japan as of May 2016 was 78%. It was down from 90% as of 2011, but still overwhelmingly high. (Mainichi Newspaper, August 5, 2016.) And it is very difficult to trade the nationalistic sentiment by money. Just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tokyo tried to recover four islands by offering sizable economic assistance. President Boris Yeltsin responded by showing some flexibleness on the territorial issue. However, he could not overcome the objection from Russian people. Although Russia today suffers from economic hardship as a result of sharp declines in the commodity prices and sanctions by Western countries, current economic condition is far better than that of Yeltsin’s era.

The former Soviet Union and Russia have effectively governed the Southern Kuril Islands for more than seventy years. The islands also have non-negligible values for Russians. The Etorofu and the Kunashiri host military facilities. Kremlin still sees the strategic importance of those islands.

What’s more, the Northern Territories are not desert islands. Approximately seven thousand and three hundred people live in Kunasiri. About six thousand are in Etrofu, two thousand nine hundred in Shikotan. It is unrealistic to expect Putin to order or persuade the islanders to leave. Abe and Ministry of Foreign Affairs seem to hope too much for the personal leadership of President Putin. But Putin is not a Tsar. Russia is now a kind of democracy in a sense that its president is chosen by election, so are the 450 members of Duma. Remember that Putin was moved to tears when he won the (not very fair) presidential election in March 2012. It will be very difficult for Putin and other politicians to neglect the will of the islanders and the rest of the Russian people.

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