Yeltsin cancels visit to Japan

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The Independent Online
IN A bold diplomatic snub to Japan and an acknowledgement of domestic pressure at home, President Boris Yeltsin yesterday postponed at the last minute his long-awaited trip to Tokyo. The visit had been arranged in the hope of settling a territorial dispute over the Kurile Islands, seized by Soviet troops in 1945, and of releasing Japanese economic aid to Russia.

In Tokyo, a government spokesman said Japan regretted the indefinite postponement, but said he understood it was difficult for Mr Yeltsin to go ahead with the visit. There had been speculation that Mr Yeltsin might be prepared to offer at least two of the four Kurile islands in return for Tokyo granting large-scale economic assistance, but the Russian leader's declining support at home and vociferous opposition from Russian nationalists to any territorial concessions apparently persuaded Mr Yeltsin not to go.

No official reason was given immediately by the Kremlin for the postponement of the trip due this weekend. Last week, Mr Yeltsin's security guards were ready to call off the trip because of concern about possible attacks on Mr Yeltsin by Japanese extremist groups, and because the Japanese authorities would not allow Mr Yeltsin's bodyguards to carry arms.

The move took the Japanese by surprise. The decision was taken at an emergency meeting of Mr Yeltsin's Security Council that was suddenly called yesterday afternoon, and which replaced a press conference the Russian leader had scheduled with Japanese journalists to discuss the visit to Tokyo. The postponement also affects the plan to fly to the South Korean capital, Seoul.

Postponing the visit helps Mr Yeltsin negotiate some troubled political waters ahead. He is about to come under fire again from conservatives who feel his radical economic reforms have caused too much hardship to the Russian people and should be slowed down. A new offensive is expected from conservative Russian MPs on Mr Yeltsin's chief economic adviser, Yegor Gaidar. These attacks would have gained weight among Russian nationalists if Mr Yeltsin had given away any territory to the Japanese, or even indicated that he might be prepared to do so.

The postponement also increases the authority of the Security Council, a conservative-dominated group set up this summer to oversee policy in domestic and foreign affairs. Russian conservatives have been waiting to see how much clout the council would have in running affairs of state and, in particular, in crucial foreign policy decisions.

The Russian Foreign Ministry, dominated by liberals, has been ready to accommodate Western demands - from the International Monetary Fund, for example - in order to be sure of Western and Japanese economic aid. But Russian conservatives have complained bitterly about such moves and will be heartened that Mr Yeltsin had the guts to tell the Japanese, in effect, that he could do without their help - at least for now.