MOSCOW - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sat down for talks Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin focusing on a decades-long territorial dispute between the two nations.
The Soviet Union took the four southernmost Kuril Islands during the final days of World War II. Japan asserts territorial rights to the islands, which it calls the Northern Territories, and the dispute has kept the countries from signing a peace treaty.
Russia's top diplomat on Monday threw cold water on Tokyo's hopes for a quick return of disputed islands in the Pacific, warning Japan that it must recognize them as part of Russia's territory as a starting point for talks.
The stern statement from Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, which followed the talks with his Japanese counterpart Taro Kono, appeared to reflect Moscow's efforts to temper Japanese expectations of an imminent deal.
It sets a tough stage for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's trip to Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin later this month.
Greeting Abe at the start of the talks, Putin noted that their conversation will follow up on recent meetings between the two nations’ top officials.
“I’m very glad to see you here,” Putin said with a smile. “It’s very pleasant that our meetings have become quite regular.”
Abe noted that he would like to talk about the peace treaty issue based on last week’s talks between top diplomats of the two countries.
“I would like to have a through discussion on the peace treaty,” Abe said through an interpreter.
The Japanese leader has held dozens of meetings with Putin in recent years in a bid to solve the dispute, and they agreed in November to accelerate negotiations based on a 1956 Soviet proposal to return two of the islands to Japan.
Earlier this month, Abe voiced hope that this year will mark a breakthrough in talks and spoke about an imminent change of the islands’ status — remarks that irked Moscow.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned Japan last week that it must recognize all four islands as part of Russia as a starting point for talks — a tough demand that did not bode well for Abe’s talks with Putin.
On Sunday, Kremlin foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov noted that recent statements from Tokyo made the talks between the two presidents even more difficult.
Speaking to the Interfax news agency before the talks, Abe emphasized that the signing of a peace treaty is needed to pave the way for closer cooperation between the two nations.
He added that he intends to maintain intensive talks with Putin in order to reach a “mutually acceptable solution.”
Japanese media reports have indicated that Tokyo is open to a deal for the transfer of two smaller islands to Japan, fueling concerns in Russian nationalist circles.
Several dozen demonstrators gathered outside the Japanese Embassy in Moscow to protest against the islands’ return. One of the protesters held a placard reading: “We didn’t vote for the sale of the islands.”
Left-wing activist Sergei Udaltsov said Tuesday that 11 protesters were detained by police.