Kuril Islands under dispute again

President Putin, earlier this week, offered to return two of the four disputed Kuril Islands to Japan, paving the way to a peace treaty that has eluded the two states since the end of WW2.  President Koizumi of Japan, however, rejected the offer in no uncertain terms:

"The return of two islands is taken for granted, but that alone will not be satisfactory to Japan,” Koizumi said. "A peace treaty cannot be concluded until after it is made clear to whom the four islands belong.”

With national pride at stake, the future status of the islands is a major political issue in both Russia and Japan.  But feelings in Russia seem to be running especially high at the moment.  Some of the Russians living on the islands have even vowed to set up a militia – members of the 100 strong Kurile’s Defense Squadron have vowed to fight to the death to defend their homes and livelihoods.

23-year-old Dmitry from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk also supported radical measures: “Me and my friends are going to be at the barricades, we won’t wait at the sidelines.” Anna, a student in economics, said: “There will be real slaughter. My two brothers said they will go to war if the islands are given away. My parents support their decision.”

Even in Moscow, where criticism of Putin and his initiative’s is usually pretty muted, opposition is growing:

Rodina faction in the State Duma is strongly opposed to even raising the question of giving two South Kuril Islands to Japan. "We will categorically oppose the issue," Dmitry Rogozin, faction leader, told Ekho Moskvy radio on Monday.

Leader of the newborn Russian liberal party Our Choice Irina Khakamada has said she believes the Russian leadership should explain to the people its possible decision on the disputed territory with Japan.

I think eventually the islands will be transferred to Japan.  Russia needs Japanese business investment too badly not to concede the islands, and it is very noticable that every overture in recent years has come from Russia, not Japan. 

But I’m also very concerned that Russians living on the Kuriles at the moment won’t go quietly.  For them, the future must look bleak.  They may be kicked out of their homes if Japan refuses to offer them citizenship.  They would lose the land that is their livelihood and be forced to return to a Russia where they have no homes or jobs to support themselves.  And, even if they are offered citizenship, how many would be prepared to become Japanese – to live under a foreign government?  While a bloody conflict reminiscent of pre ww2 battles between the Soviet Union and Japan is extremely unlikely, I wouldn’t rule out some violent protests in the run-up to (and possibly beyond) any future transfer date.

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