Yeltsin going ahead with Tokyo visit: Rethink on Japan policy defies conservative hardliners

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - Boris Yeltsin made a surprise announcement yesterday that he would go ahead with an official visit to Japan which was abandoned last year because of a territorial dispute between Tokyo and Moscow, writes Helen Womack. Itar-Tass news agency said the Russian President would probably make the visit in July, which suggested he would combine it with a scheduled summit of the Group of Seven industrialised countries to which he has also been invited.

President Yeltsin abruptly cancelled his trip to Tokyo last September, apparently to avoid trouble with his hardline, domestic opponents who were and still are against his even discussing the return of the Kurile Islands which Soviet troops seized from Japan at the end of the Second World War.

The new governor of Russia's far- eastern Sakhalin province, Yevgeny Krasnoyarov, said yesterday there could be no settlement of the dispute until Japanese and Russian living standards were equal, which could take up to 100 years.

But Mr Yeltsin's announcement suggested that he might be rethinking his policy towards Tokyo in order to attract much-need Japanese aid and investment for Russia's battered economy. The gloves are now off in Mr Yeltsin's battle with the hardliners and he no longer cares whether he offends them. For their part, the Japanese are less insistent in public about the Kurile Islands.

Japan has been hesitant about helping Russia, but substantial aid from Tokyo could boost economic reforms, especially in Siberia.

Any aid from Japan will, however, come too late to be decisive in Mr Yeltsin's power struggle with the Soviet-era parliament which will reach its climax with a referendum on who rules Russia on 25 April.

Yesterday Mr Yeltsin's spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, accused the conservative parliamentary chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov, of 'stooping to open lies' by claiming that businessmen and even Russian Orthodox priests were paying bribes to influence the vote in the President's favour. Opinion polls suggest that Russians who bother to turn out to vote will be more likely to endorse Mr Yeltsin than withdraw their confidence in him. But society is now so apathetic that the turn-out could be disastrously low.

Local election results showed yesterday that a rouble billionaire businessman, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, was preferred to the Communist and army candidates in the southern region of Kalmykia.

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