Under the political cover of the Group of Seven summit in Tokyo, Russian President Boris Yeltsin may have set the stage for settling one of the most serious foreign policy issues still left over from the Cold War -- the dispute between Japan and Moscow over four islands in the Kurile group seized by Soviet forces in the closing days of World War II.
Twice in the past year Mr. Yeltsin had to cancel visits to Japan, to the great annoyance of his prospective hosts, because reactionary and military elements hostile to his leadership would not countenance any discussions about possible loss of territory.
This time the Russian president, having been strengthened by his referendum victory last spring, finally got to Tokyo in his capacity as a would-be eighth member of the G-7. He immediately apologized for his past no-shows, promised "absolutely" he would make an official visit in the fall and expressed confidence the two nations can "eliminate the obstacles of the past and achieve a peaceful normalization of our relations."
A Russian-Japanese rapprochement would have enormous consequences in international affairs.
It would at last permit a natural match-up between Japan's vast capital and technological resources and the huge mineral riches of Siberia. It would give the Japanese government the political leeway to carry its fair share in international financial efforts to help consolidate Russian democracy. It would help Mr. Yeltsin thwart separatist forces in the Russian federation, where the Far East region (with its dreams of being a capitalist entrepot) has declared itself a republic. And it might stabilize a security situation now shaken by North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
For the United States, which was able to put together a $3 billion package to promote the privatization of Russia's big state-owned enterprises at the G-7 summit, the prospect of Russian-Japanese friendship could diminish Washington's leverage in dealing with both of these powers. Resource-poor Japan would gain a new sphere of economic influence and Russia presumably could tap a new financial benefactor. But in the overall scheme of things, Washington should encourage developments that would enable Japan and Russia to have a "normal" relationship not distorted by a wartime anachronism in which the Roosevelt and Truman administrations acquiesced.
The four northern islands in dispute have minimal strategic value. The symbolic significance attached to them for 48 years should be discarded.