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Russia Wants Kuril Islands Settled

January 3, 1999

KUNASHIR, Kuril Islands (AP) _ With the fish factories shuttered and the one-note economy in shambles, the Russians on these stormy, volcanic islands are debating a radical survival plan _ leasing their territory to covetous Japan.

Russia and Japan have been feuding for 53 years over the four southernmost Kuril islands as if they were sacred ground. Yet the scene at Kunashir’s port _ the very heart of the most populous island _ is an unbroken vision of rot and decay.

White-cap waves crash down on dozens of rusting fishing trawlers, many half-submerged and abandoned for years. Derelict cars and wrecked machinery litter a shore that looks more like a floating junkyard than a working port. A fish processing plant, once the island’s economic hub, stands silent following its bankruptcy a year ago.

``The Kuril Islands used to live, to breathe,″ says fisherman Oleg Sanikov, an 11-year resident. ``Now, if it weren’t for Japan, the Kurils couldn’t survive. Everything is from Japan.″

Fittingly, the port stirs to life only when a Russian fishing boat, the Sviritsa, returns from Japan, just a few miles across the rough seas.

The boat has sold a load of sea urchins and is bringing back food and clothes for the island’s thinly stocked stores. The cars greeting the boat are secondhand Japanese models, as are almost all vehicles on the island.

Against this bleak economic backdrop, some Russians on two of the four disputed islands have signed petitions to lease their land to Japan for up to 99 years in exchange for investment and economic assistance.

``I’m all for leasing an island if it allows us to live a normal life,″ says Mayor Vladimir Zema, who lives on Kunashir and represents the three southernmost Kurils.

This controversial notion has injected a note of urgency into the dispute over the four islands, which are part of the Kuril chain that runs like a vertebrae along the northwest Pacific between Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula.

Russia recognized Japan’s control over the four southernmost Kurils in an 1875 treaty, but the Soviet army captured the islands in the waning days of World War II. Tokyo has demanded them back ever since, and the issue has prevented the countries from ever signing a peace treaty.

But with Japanese-Russian relations warming, and the Kuril residents growing restless, there may be room for a breakthrough, although neither Moscow nor Tokyo has offered any major concessions.

Looking at a map, it’s hard to believe the islands are part of Russia. They are east of Tokyo and only a few miles from Japan at their nearest point, while Moscow is nearly 6,000 miles away.

The islands are perpetually in the grip of unruly weather, with storms so fierce that boats from the Russian mainland stop visiting for several months every winter.

A single day brings driving snow in the morning, thick sleet at lunchtime, a brief respite in the afternoon, followed by a night of gale force winds that make it difficult to stand straight. Still, the rugged islands are beautiful with their snow-capped volcanoes, birch and spruce forests and thriving bird life.

In Soviet times, the population of the four islands used to double in summer months when 20,000 workers from the mainland helped process crab, pollock, salmon and caviar from the rich fishing grounds.

Since the Soviet collapse, Moscow has not been willing to subsidize expensive and distant outposts. With less and less help, the population on the islands has shrunk to just 15,000, and several thousand of them are border guards protecting Moscow’s claim.

The frustrated residents on Shikotan, the poorest island, reached their breaking point Oct. 14 when their electrical power station exploded, leaving them in darkness.

The islanders had been seeking assistance since a powerful 1994 earthquake that partially damaged the station, flattened many houses and killed dozens of residents.

``The government hasn’t given one kopeck to repair the electric station since the earthquake,″ says Valentin Smorchkov, deputy to the mayor for the South Kurils region.

Since the explosion, Shikotan has been getting by on about half of its old electricity supply by using generators.

Meanwhile, almost all adults on Shikotan signed a petition calling for the island to be leased to Japan. The petition signing spread to Kunashir, though it still appears to be a minority opinion on this island.

``It’s a completely stupid idea,″ says Anatoly Baranikov, 46, a life-long resident of the Kurils. The only issue for him, as with many Russians, is patriotism.

``This is the motherland,″ Baranikov adds in a tone that doesn’t invite further discussion.

That is the mantra of many Russian politicians, who are unlikely to lease any islands to Japan no matter how destitute they become.

However, Zema, the mayor, says the islanders may consider leasing the island to a private Japanese firm. Such an arrangement wouldn’t require Moscow’s approval because regional officials are allowed to make leasing arrangements directly with foreign investors, he argues.

Meanwhile, Japan’s strategy for reclaiming the islands is to provide a steady stream of aid to impoverished Russia at a time when most international lenders have turned off the tap.

At a November summit between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, Japan agreed to give Russia close to $1 billion, with $100 million earmarked for the Kurils.

The Japanese also welcome Russian visitors from the Kurils. If the Russians can afford the transportation, they receive free food and lodging for up to two weeks in Japan. About 500 have been making the trip annually.

A similar number of Japanese, mostly elderly, visit the Kurils to see the land where they once lived or visit the graves of relatives.

``We have never had happy times in Russian-Japanese relations,″ said Shusuke Wantanabe, head of the Japanese consulate on Russia’s Sakhalin Island. ``There have always been frictions and hostilities. This is the time to make new relations.″

The Russians certainly welcome the current arrangement _ receiving Japanese aid without making any concessions.

The irony is that Japan’s largess may make Russia even more reluctant to offer compromises. The aid serves as life-support for the dwindling Russian population that might otherwise shrivel to a tiny group of border guards and die-hard fishermen.

The mayor and his aides estimate more than 80 percent of the islands’ food, and nearly all of the cars and electronics, come from Japan.

Fishermen regularly sell their catch to the Japanese _ sometimes traveling to a nearby port, occasionally selling directly to Japanese fishing boats at sea _ because they get much higher prices.

The Russians know their feeble economy would crumble without the Japanese, but many worry that if the Japanese took over, Russians would become second-class citizens.

``If they Japanese come, we would be their servants,″ said Sanikov, the fisherman.

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