Moscow: Crisis talks between Russia and Japan over four Pacific islands ended in acrimonious failure on Friday when Tokyo reaffirmed its claim on the chain and Moscow accused its neighbour of extreme behaviour.
The two-hour meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Japanese counterpart Seiji Maehara was marked by an icy atmosphere and sings of an increasingly tense stalemate in the Kuril Islands dispute.
Japan slapped down a Russian proposal to form a joint commission to help resolve the crisis and the two diplomats notably failed to discuss a mooted visit to Moscow by Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan.
"We could not bridge our differences," the Japanese foreign minister said flatly after talks that included a brief but unscheduled one-on-one meeting with Lavrov.
The difficult meeting opened with the two delegations staring coldly at each other from opposite sides of a long table and Lavrov telling Maehara in a stern voice that he found Japan's recent actions unacceptable.
"To be honest, I expected to receive you in Moscow against a better backdrop," a stern-looking Lavrov said. "Your visit comes against the background of a series of completely unacceptable actions."
The meeting followed a tense week in which the Japanese Prime Minister called Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's November visit to the islands an "unforgivable outrage" and a bullet was mailed to Moscow's embassy in Tokyo.
Medvedev has responded by calling the Kurils an "inseparable" part of Russia and vowing to strengthen the archipelago's defences.
Friday's negotiations not only failed to make any headway but also suggested that the two sides were running out of ideas about how to overcome their dispute.
They ended with the two diplomats sitting side-by-side in a frosty joint press conference in which Maehara wore a stony expression and Lavrov read through a list of complaints against Japan.
"When radical positions are adopted in Japan... and this happens sometimes, and they are shared by the leaders of the country, then of course any kind of dialogue has no chance," Lavrov said.
Maehara responded that the islands -- known in Japan as the Northern Territories -- were his country's historic territory.
"The Northern Territories are age-old Japanese territory," he said.
Maehara had not been invited to see either Medvedev or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the what the Moscow press interpreted as an intentional snub.
A member of Maehara's delegation did not deny that Tokyo had been hoping for such a meeting but stressed that Tokyo "does not disclose any attempts to negotiate appointments”.
The decades-long impasse has prevented the signature of a formal peace treaty and kept Japanese investments to a minimum in Russia's under-developed Far East.
Russia on Friday suggested forming a "historical commission" that could rule on which country ultimately owned the chain.
But Maehara quickly responded that he did not think that such a commission would be "very useful”.
The two sides had used previous meetings to gloss over the dispute and focus on more immediate trade relations in the Pacific region.
The two sides on Friday discussed a series of Far East energy projects and agreed later this year to hold a roundtable discussion in Russia that included the two sides' business leaders.
Medvedev has also proposed making the Kurils into a free trade zone that attracts Japanese investments on favourable terms.
But Maehara said on Friday that Japan would only cooperate in such a venture if it did not "alter Japan's legal position" on the Kurils.
Trade between Russia and Japan remained flat throughout most of the post-Soviet era and only began growing in 2005. But one Japanese official said the current stalemate threatened to undercut these budding ties.
"We should stop looking at Russian-Japanese relations through the prism of territorial issues," said Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Satoru Sato.
"In order to build trade, we must avoid damaging the political atmosphere," Sato said.
First Published: Saturday, February 12, 2011, 13:49