Islanders tempted by a place under the sun: Terry McCarthy in Kunashiri examines the dilemma of the locals as Moscow and Tokyo squabble over the Kuriles

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The Independent Online
IN THE past few months the local newspaper published in the Kurile Islands, Na Rubirzhe (On the Frontier), has been carrying a column on learning the Japanese language. As Moscow and Tokyo continue to bicker about sovereignty over the four islands, the islanders themselves are becoming more interested in what life is like in Japan, and the possibilities of economic contacts.

The 9 May edition of Na Rubirzhe had a list of Japanese phrases for starting a conversation. The first was 'Pleased to meet you', followed immediately by 'Thank you for the presents you have brought'. The Russian islanders are getting used to the Japanese custom of bringing presents wherever they go, although only a trickle of Japanese have visited the islands, starting this year, under a Russo-Japanese agreement.

But however grateful the isolated islanders are for the presents, they do not trust the Japanese, even when they come bearing gifts. The Japanese, for their part, in an attempt to persuade the islanders that life under the Japanese flag would bring riches and prosperity compared to the misery of the disintegrating Russian economy, have hinted at large aid and development packages if their demand for sovereignty over the islands is granted.

'I am sure the Japanese can give big compensation, but it will be a short-term victory,' said Fyodor Pouzhianov, 58, a teacher who has lived in the Kuriles for 23 years. 'Our people are not ready in their minds to be under the Japanese government. They are Russians, not Japanese.'

The historical argument over who owns the four islands - Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai - is a diplomatic minefield, full of disputed documents, verbal agreements later retracted and a legacy of mutual distrust lingering from the days of the Cold War. Until the Second World War the disputed islands were inhabited by Japanese, but in the closing days of the war Russian troops invaded. For three years Russian settlers and the Japanese residents lived side by side, but in 1948 Stalin ordered all the Japanese to leave, and they were sent across the Nemuro Straits to the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.

In the Yalta Agreement in 1945, Stalin persuaded Roosevelt and Churchill to agree that at the end of the war the entire Kurile island chain would be given to Russia. For a while after the war Japan tried to resist, but in the San Francisco peace conference in 1951 the Japanese delegation finally gave in, and retracted their claims to any of the Kuriles.

However, as the Cold War intensified in the 1950s, Japan, this time with new-found American support, began to renew its claims to the islands - first to Shikotan and Habomai, which Tokyo says do not belong to the Kurile chain, and then to include the islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu as well, on the basis that they were traditionally Japanese territory. And for the past 35 years Tokyo and Moscow's relations have been stuck over the issue - technically Japan and Russia are still at war, as no peace treaty has been signed pending resolution of the dispute.

These diplomatic wrangles between Tokyo and Moscow seem very remote to the Kurile islanders, who are more concerned with the worsening economic situation on the islands, the future for their children, and the fate of the forests and fisheries they have grown to love. Nearly 7,000 miles away from Moscow, they are on the very fringes of a chronically sick Russian economy, and with spiralling transport costs goods are becoming both rare and expensive. By contrast, the Japanese island of Hokkaido is only several miles across the sea from the southern Kuriles.

'Our people are realising that things are much better in Japan, and that we will be influenced by Japan's economic strength. We understand this,' said Nikolai Pokidin, the Mayor of Kunashiri. 'But if we give these islands to the Japanese they will take all the salmon from the Pacific Coast of Russia. Frankly I don't trust the Japanese 100 per cent - we are more open than the Japanese.'

Until recently, the vast majority of the 25,000 islanders were adamantly against returning the islands to Japan. In a referendum last year, 75 per cent voted to remain Russian.

As the economy continues to deteriorate, however, public opinion is vacillating. Many in the older generation will never lose their hostility towards Japan, but the younger generation who did not experience the war seem more attracted to Japan's economic promise. 'If the Japanese take over, I would leave,' said German Potatov, a 56-year-old lawyer. 'The Japanese think they are a superior race. We know how they discriminate against Koreans living in Japan, and they would probably do the same with Russians.'

Mikhail Loukianov, 38, a former docker, belongs to the small but growing number of people who think the islanders would gain from belonging to Japan. 'I am not afraid to live with Japanese. We have been living with Communists for 70 years, so after that I can live with anyone.' Mr Loukianov has set up Zemlyak, a society which is lobbying for the return of the islands to Japan. Zemlyak has 300 members, and Mr Loukianov says he wants guarantees from both the Japanese and the Russian governments to protect the future lifestyles of the islanders.

Whatever their views on the sovereignty issue, all the islanders share a concern about potential damage to the Kuriles should big Japanese companies be allowed in. The Kuriles have thick forests, and the rivers and the surrounding sea are teeming with fish. Already many high-speed fishing boats from Hokkaido are eluding Russian border patrol ships to poach fish from around the islands.

None of the islanders expects their interests to be uppermost in the minds of Japanese and Russian diplomats when a final settlement is reached. Younger people are already trying to learn some Japanese as an insurance policy.

(Photograph omitted)

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