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Russian pundits have expressed bewilderment over what prompted Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to make a repeat trip on Tuesday to one of the four Pacific Kuril islands claimed by Japan. Russian media have interpreted the premier’s visit as a way to personally oversee the Kremlin’s ambitious program to develop the Russian Far East. Still, most political analysts said the visit, which could unearth old tensions and re-ignite a low-intensity conflict, is unwarranted and “a largely symbolic gesture.”
Medvedev braved the unpredictable weather to visit Kunashir on Tuesday, accompanied by top officials including Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets, Far East envoy Viktor Ishaev and Regional Development Minister Oleg Govorun. In a swift reaction, Japan summoned Russian Ambassador to Japan Yevgeny Afanasyev and demanded explanations over the trip just a few minutes after Medvedev's plane landed on Kunashir Island.
Medvedev caused a stir when he first visited the islands in November 2010, the first-ever visit to the islands by a Russian leader. Both countries have endured several years of disputes ever since the end of World War II, when the Soviet Union seized the four islands known as the Southern Kurils in Russia, but which Japan calls its Northern Territories. Tokyo's continued claim over the islands – Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan, and Habomai – has prevented Russia and Japan from signing a formal peace treaty to end World War II hostilities. In the recent past, low-intensity confrontations around the disputed islands have even resulted in tragedies, such as when Russian maritime authorities in 2006 killed a Japanese fisherman and captured a crab fishing boat in local waters.
Already, some political analysts see signs that the Kremlin is strengthening its claim over the islands as recent events in the Middle East have cast a pall over the future of the Russian military base in Syria. Faced with the possibility of losing Russia's naval base in Tartus, the Kremlin cannot afford to commit another political hara-kiri by giving away a hard-fought prize, said Yuri Korgunyuk, political science director at the Moscow-based Indem Foundation.
"Our ships and fishing boats can now easily parade the area without as much as a nod from the Japanese, but if the islands are given away, we will need permission from the Japanese to do so," Korgunyuk said. "We must not lose sight of the fact that the islands are rich in gold and silver and other resources, which the Kremlin may one day want to develop."
Medvedev’s itinerary in the Far East speaks in favor of the Kremlin's economic agenda. Medvedev earlier visited Vladivostok, where the government has been bulking up the infrastructure in preparation for 24th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in September. He later stopped over in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, where he dropped the first hint about the purpose of his visit to the disputed islands. "The islands of the Kurils are our territory which should develop just like the mainland of our country," Medvedev said in televised comments. "We have to develop new investment projects including those with the participation of foreign firms."
Since returning to the Kremlin in May, President Vladimir Putin has made the development of Russia’s eastern reaches a key priority of his new term. Among other measures, the Kremlin forged ahead in April with a controversial plan to create a state corporation that will control the distribution of licenses for mineral extraction in 16 regions in Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East. The Kremlin's grand design includes partially exempting the corporation from federal legislation, as well as giving it massive tax breaks and significant leeway to operate outside regional state control.
But while Medvedev’s latest visit might well be about pushing through such designs, some analysts said it also presents the premier with an opportunity to fight for his own political survival. "Since becoming the prime minister, infighting between the Kremlin elites has intensified, with many of them jostling for power and influence," said Alexei Makarkin, deputy head of the Center for Political Technologies. "Medvedev desperately needs to demonstrate that he's not just a product of circumstances but a political figure in his own right. Kunashir happens to present a perfect setting for demonstrating that."
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Russia in Global Affairs journal, believes Medvedev’s “uncalled-for visit” to the islet is part of the Kremlin’s longstanding quest for a greater consistency in Russian foreign policy. "The need to make an economic case alone does not justify the premier's visit to the territory," Lukyanov said. "After staking his reputation on the development of the Russian Far East, the Kremlin needs to demonstrate consistency, if only for domestic consumption." For the Kremlin, this is more a question of prestige, he said. “If the Kremlin cannot credibly project a superpower image to the world, at least it can pretend to do so in the Asian Pacific region,” Lukyanov said.
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