The Fourth Portsmouth Peace Treaty Forum

Professor Hiroshi Kimura
Putin's Possible Way of Negotiating with Japan: Scenarios Based Upon Pattern and Strategy of Gorbachev and Yeltsinan

Ladies and gentlemen and distinguished guests. I am very honored and privileged to be here today to participate in the fourth Portsmouth Peace Treaty conference forum organized by Japan-U.S. Society of New Hampshire, Russian Society for New Hampshire and (inaudible) of New Hampshire, with the assistance of Japanese Consul of Boston and other organizations.

I envy Professor Perry's eloquence and also the fact that he is closely related to the famous Commodore Perry. On the other hand, my last name is pronounced Kimura, but with one letter difference can be pronounced as Komura. Unfortunately, I am not related to the famous Japanese diplomat who contributed a great deal to the Portsmouth Peace Treaty.

Previously, a Japanese speaker used to make an apology for not preparing well for his or her presentation. However, nowadays some Japanese professors start his or her presentation by making a joke. However, it often turned out to be so bad that they have to apologize for the bad joke.

What I'd like to talk about today is as follows: what kind of strategy, what kind of behavior pattern, what kind of policy can we expect from a newly emerging Russian political leader, Vladimir Putin. This is a very important question which I will address. Yes, it is also a very difficult job for me to undertake. Why is it difficult?

First of all, Putin has been a very enigmatic and mysterious political leader with a KGB background. Furthermore, with the presidential election coming shortly on March 26th, Mr. Putin has a good reason not to disclose beforehand what he is really thinking in his mind so that some parts of his policies would not make him unpopular in the forthcoming election. Thirdly, this is one of gists of my paper. Japan does not seem to be ranking high in the foreign policy agenda of Soviet/Russian political leaders, including Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin. This is the wrong attitude, I would dare to say, yet it is an undeniable fact.

Mr. Putin says he likes the Japanese judo game very much, but what kind of political implication does this statement have? Does it imply a new Russian political leader is going to take a very accommodating policy towards Japan? Maybe not. At any rate, in short, he hasn't seemed to formulate his policy towards Japan.

What I will do this afternoon, therefore, is not to examine what Mr. Putin has already said about his policy toward Japan. (He has not said much about it.) Instead, I will go back a little bit in the history. To be more precise, I would like to check what Putin's two predecessors, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, did in practice toward Japan.

I have good justification to go back to the history. To be sure, a top political leader has changed in the past fifteen years. Yet, what I want to draw your attention to is the fact that other determinants of Russian foreign policy toward Japan have remained more or less the same.

I usually classify the determining factors of Russian foreign policy toward Japan into three categories: international (external) environments; domestic (internal) environments in Russia; and political leadership.

True, Yeltsin has recently decided to give the top leader's position to Putin. It means that one of the major determinants has changed, yet it is the change of only one of the determinants of Russian policy toward Japan. There are two other important determinants of Russia's Japan policy: namely, international environments and domestic environments. Neither of them have changed much recently. To put it a bit figuratively, no matter how large Putin's influence upon Russian foreign policy making may be, Mr. Putin is not drawing a picture on a blank canvas. He has to draw a picture on a canvas, of which color, size, subject and etc., are decided in advance to a certain extent. In other words, he has special external and internal environments facing him, and those specific agendas or tasks he must tackle at a particular moment. His power is therefore, rather limited and restrained.

Of course, between the two Russian leaders, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, there are a lot of differences, probably more differences than commonalties. However, as long as their behavior pattern toward Japan; their strategy, policy and tactics are concerned, both Gorbachev and Yeltsin did demonstrate in practice more or less the same behavior pattern and policies. That's one of the conclusions of my forthcoming books from M. E. Sharpe (two volumes.) They are very expensive books. I would thus like to take advantage of this opportunity to make an advertisement of these books. If you would like to know in more detail what I am going to summarize of both Gorbachev and Yeltsin, please be advised to buy my forthcoming books when they appear in stores in August.

What then are the commonalties between Gorbachev and Yeltsin? I would like to divide them into two, those in behavioral pattern and those in basic strategies. Their commonalties are not purely accidental. There are some good reasons why we should take a note of these commonalties and similarities. As it was emphasized above, both international environment and domestic environments have remained more or less the same under Putin and his two predecessors.

Therefore, we have a good reason to expect that Putin will follow their predecessor's policies and behavioral pattern towards Japan.

Then what is the pattern of foreign policy conduct toward Japan under Gorbachev and Yeltsin in which I see something in common? First, three stages are discernable in each administration.

During the first stage of both administrations under Gorbachev and under Yeltsin, the top political leader tended to take a rather conciliatory behavior toward Japan. The stage is thus called a "honeymoon period" between Japan on the one hand, and Soviet Union during the Gorbachev era and Russia during the Yeltsin era, on the other. Why were they taking a conciliatory attitude toward Japan? A honeymoon was possible because in these early days of their respective administrations, both Gorbachev and Yeltsin tended to entertain a sort of good feeling toward "the Land of Rising Sun," considering, first, that Japan does not provide any military security threat to the Soviet Union and to the Russian Federation. Secondly, Japan can provide to their country economic assistance and cooperation.

Whatever its reason might be, Gorbachev sent his foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze to Tokyo. Japan turned out to be the first country, which Shevardnadze visited among the G-7 member countries. Right after the failed coup attempt, Yeltsin also sent Ruslan Khazbulatov, Yeltsin's No. 2 man at that time to Japan. Both Shevardnadze and Khazbulatov conducted so-called "smile diplomacy" in Tokyo.

However, the first stage lasted very briefly, and shortly the second stage set in. That is called a period of "tentative retreatment." Both Gorbachev and Yeltsin began to realize that in order to improve relationships between Russia and Japan, there is a very difficult obstacle to be settled first, i.e., the question of sovereignty of those four islands, which were seized by Stalin's troops after the end of World War II. And since that time these islands have been kept occupied by Russia for more than half a century, despite Japan's very persistent requests to return them to Japanese hands.

And in early days of their administrations, both Gorbachev and Yeltsin had mistakenly thought that it would not have been so difficult for them to solve this question. Sooner or later, however, they started to recognize that they were utterly wrong. It is the hardest problem which no one wants to cope with. Moreover, it was not a question of urgency, either. Therefore, the agenda of improving relations with Japan gradually moved to the back burner of their foreign policy priority list. In the meantime, the Soviet Union under Gorbachev and the Russian Federation under Yeltsin tried to pay more attention to more urgent questions with more important countries, such as the United States, West European countries, China, India, or other countries.

Eventually, however, the third stage began to start, when these two leaders began to pay attention again to Japan. After having achieved some progress with those countries, such as the United States, China, and India, they started to recognize the significance of Japan for Russia. First, diplomatically, Japan plays a very useful role for Russia; Japan may serve to some extent as a useful bargaining chip for Russia to counterbalance the United States, Europe, and China; second, the United States and other Western countries alone cannot necessarily provide sufficient economic cooperation and assistance to Russia. Japan, a second biggest global power, becomes an excellent target for Russia's diplomatic offensive for economic aid.

However, this kind of realization of the roles on the side of Russian leaders that Japan may play for Russia came too late. By that time, these top political leaders, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, started losing political power on the domestic front.

In order to make a breakthrough in diplomatic Russian-Japanese relations, these top political leaders had to make some concessions with regard to the so-called territorial dispute with Japan. In order to do this, they had to have very strong political power in Russia. But it was ironic that by that time they became ready to do so, both Gorbachev and Yeltsin became politically weak in Russia. Besides, political opposition parties or other opposing forces started to politicize this territorial question so that they could exploit the territorial problem with Japan as a very convenient political tool in their domestic political power struggle against the top incumbent leader.

Thus, neither Gorbachev nor Yeltsin became unable to make much concession toward Japan. This was quite an ironic development of events. When they wanted to pay more attention to Japan, they found themselves too weak to make any concessions to Japan. It can be stressed anew that in politics timing is a very important factor indeed, which politicians must keep in mind.

Toward the end of their reign, both Gorbachev and Yeltsin decided to take a policy of preserving status quo for their own political survival rather than that of making a bold initiative toward Japan.

In short, both Gorbachev and Yeltsin missed an opportunity to visit Japan, to deal with Japan over the territorial question. When Gorbachev visited Japan in April 1991, the cherry blossom season was already over in Tokyo. It's symbolic.

Let me recapitulate what I have said so far: First, Russian perception of Japan: Japan does not necessarily occupy a high position in the priority list of Russian foreign policy; for Russia, Japan is militarily far less an important country compared with the United States and Europe. Only economically is Japan important to Russia. Japan is not raising either so urgent a problem as China, Ukraine, Baltic and Chechnya as the other countries did.

Furthermore, the Japanese problem, namely the "Northern Territories" problem, is so difficult to be dealt with by any Russian political leaders that no Russian political leaders want to seriously face this question.

Let me now turn to the second commonality between Gorbachev and Yeltsin. There were commonalties in the policy that both leaders resorted to toward Japan. Both leaders were facing a serious dilemma. If I put it in a very simple fashion, they wanted to obtain economic assistance and cooperation from Japan without yielding much to Japan's territorial request. The Japanese side is not so stupid. Their task became a very difficult one. As a result, both Gorbachev and Yeltsin tried to employ a sophisticated policy toward Japan. First, they argued that the territorial conflict between Russia and Japan was a very difficult question; they had to take a policy of solving this question not by one stroke, but by a step-by-step approach. The gist of their strategy is a strategy of postponing as long as possible or even shelving, hopefully for good, the solution of the territorial dispute with Japan. In the meantime, they want to draw economically as much assistance as possible from Russia from Japan.

However, Japanese are, of course, not very happy with that kind of strategy, and tended to become very reluctant to provide any economic aid to Russia. The Russians, therefore, had to make a few concessions to Japan. What were the concessions the Russian side made under the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras?

First, both of their top leaders officially acknowledged an existence of territorial dispute, which they didn't do in Soviet days. Second, the territory whose sovereignty is to be discussed is now not limited to only two smaller islands (the Shikotan Island and the Habomai Islands), but four islands, including the two larger ones (the Kunashiri Island and Shikotan Islands).

In other words, the two top Russian leaders did agree clearly that they were, from now on, discussing the legal status of the four islands; yet indeed indicated that the future generation will decide this difficult territorial question.

That's exactly the reason why I consider that although both Gorbachev and Yeltsin might have started being a "statesman" at their earlier administration, they ended up becoming "politicians." "Statesman" aims at achieving something great for a future generation even at the cost of a present generation, whereas "Politicians," who are interested in their own survival and popularity among current voters, try to sacrifice the future generation for the benefits of a present generation.

At any rate, these four disputed islands have become regarded as a sort of special zone, meaning the zone which is not one hundred percent a Russian territory nor one hundred percent a Japanese territory either. It is a in-between area, i.e. a gray zone area. That's why the Japanese can go to visit these islands without obtaining an entry visa from the Russian government. And I myself was able to visit these islands last summer. If I have enough time today, I will tell you my experience of visiting these disputed islands without getting a visa from the Russian government. Moreover, Japanese fishermen are now allowed to conduct fishing in the sea around these disputed islands.

Russian justification for these measures is as follows. These southern Kurile islands are currently held by Russians, and their sovereignty is debated by Japanese and Russians. The question is a very complicated and difficult one. The conflict cannot be resolved by one stroke. One step by step approach is thus appropriate. It is absolutely necessary for Russians and Japanese to build a good atmosphere between these two nations, in which the territorial problem would perhaps be solved in the future. "The creation of a good environment" - this is a key phrase. First, create a good environment between Russia and Japan, then a possible solution of problems may be created in the future. One must follow this order, not vice versa.

We are easily misled by such beautiful words as "creation of good environment." The Tokyo government, too, considers it desirable and even necessary to create a good atmosphere between the two nations, conducive to reaching a solution to the territorial problem. At the same time, however, Tokyo is very much concerned about the possibility that such atmosphere or environment building might not necessarily lead to a solution of the territorial dispute in the future, and it instead may end up serving Russia's strategy of postponing forever the solution of the dispute.

In conclusion, let me make three points. First, external environments outside Russia have been very favorable to the solution of territorial question between Japan and Russia, because the disputed islands have ceased to have any military strategic value since the end of the Cold War between the two camps. Previously, Russians used to attach a very important military strategic value to these islands in their "bastion strategy" against the U.S.A. An important source of a territorial dispute is thus rather a psychological question; namely pride, prestige, or face of the Russian people.

My second conclusion is as follows: Domestically, only gradually and at slow pace, situations have been moving toward a solution of this territorial conflict between Japan and Russia. At this moment, on the other hand, the resurgence of Russian nationalism appears to be still strong. On the other, however, the Russian economic situation is disastrous after Russia's "victory" over Chechnya. The Russians, perhaps do not want to see the transfer of "their" territory back to Japan. I understand well such Russian feeling. But, I am sure, nationalism and patriotism will gradually be replaced by a rational calculation of cost and benefit. Cost of war in Chechnya costs a lot. And IMF is now not ready to give the money to Russia. The new Putin administration must please Japan in order to get more money for Russia. Besides, Russian public opinion has been changing, albeit very slowly, to favor the return of islands to Japan. This is particularly the case to the inhabitants on the disputed islands. When I visited these islands last summer, I found out that there was no electricity, no running water over there. Therefore, in the meetings we held with current Russian inhabitants, the majority of Russian islanders said to us that they must agree with an idea that these islands will eventually be returned to Japan, but they only wondered under which condition. Conditionality - this appears to be a question of debate now between the Russian islanders and the Japanese.

Finally, the third point: The year 2000 and next year, 2001 will be a decisive year for Russia and Japan. As was mentioned, both Gorbachev and Yeltsin tended to take a bold initiative in their so-called honeymoon period. If President Putin wants to make a diplomatic breakthrough with Japan, he is very strongly advised to move quickly before his popularity begins to go down. Otherwise, he is almost destined to become a "politician," not a "statesman" following precisely those patterns and stages which his predecessors Gorbachev and Yeltsin did.

Thank you very much for your attention.

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