MOSCOW – Russia's prime minister on Monday visited Pacific islands claimed by Japan, a move that brought a protest from Tokyo, and said the government is considering setting up a special economic zone there.
Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin is touring Russia's Far East and Siberia this week, and the Kuril Islands were his first stop on Monday.
Mishustin visited a hospital and a fish plant on Iturup, one of the four southernmost Kuril islands. He told plant workers that the Russian government is considering creating a special economic zone on the islands, in which business and investors would be free of most taxes and customs duties.
The measure Russian officials is currently pondering “could be a good solution for investors, including the ones in the West, for Japan also, which, if interested, can create jobs here,” Mishustin said. He added that “this special regime will allow the intensification of economic activity" on the islands.
Mishustin said he would discuss the project with Russian President Vladimir Putin. On Friday, Putin asked the prime minister to “pay special attention” to the Kuril Islands during his trip to the Far East, noting that Moscow had been working with “Japanese partners...to create the necessary conditions for those involved in economic activity.”
Japan asserts territorial rights to the islands it calls the Northern Territories. The Soviet Union took them in the final days of World War II, and the dispute has kept the countries from signing a peace treaty formally ending their hostilities.
Decades of diplomatic efforts to negotiate a settlement haven’t produced any visible results.
Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spent a lot of time and effort in the hope of negotiating a solution during his nearly eight years in office but scored little progress.
Shortly after taking office last September, newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga discussed the territorial dispute in a call with Putin and said he hopes to find a settlement and sign a peace treaty.
In the wake of Mishustin's visit to Iturup on Monday, Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Mori summoned the Russian ambassador to Japan, Mikhail Galuzin, to protest.
The ambassador said the protest was “unacceptable in light of the fundamental position of the Russian side” on the southern Kuril Islands, “which passed to our country legally following the results of the World War II,” the Russian embassy in Japan said in a statement on Facebook.
Russia's Foreign Ministry, in turn, protested the actions of Japanese authorities and urged “partners not to slide down towards a destructive line in bilateral relations.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also defended Mishustin's visit to Iturup, saying that as head of government, Russia's prime minster “visits those Russian regions that he considers necessary and on the development of which, including in cooperation with our partners, a lot of work is to be done.”
Associated Press journalist Haruka Nuga in Tokyo contributed to this report.