Isles of Despair Seek Japan as Savior

TIMES STAFF WRITER

So many people on the island of Kunashir have stolen slabs of metal from the local airport runway and used them to build fences and walls that the landscape seems to be wrapped in rust.

The profusion of the junk metal, used instead of concrete on the old runway, captures the bleakness of life for Russians on the Kuril Islands: the casual, ubiquitous theft; the paucity of material goods because of the islands' isolation; the Soviet-era industrial trash lying everywhere.

Perched on Russia's distant edge, on this chain of islands claimed, at least in part, by Russia and Japan, many Russians feel so isolated and neglected by Moscow politicians that they would rather be Japanese citizens.

They dream that some of the islands will revert to their former owner, the government of Japan, bringing order, jobs, stability, opportunity, year-round electricity and salaries paid on time.

"If it's between the Russian government and the Japanese government, of course the choice would be the Japanese," said Nina Kovalyova, 56, of Shikotan island. "It's not just that we feel abandoned here. We feel like hostages."

The Soviets seized the islands after Japan signed the act of capitulation at the end of World War II, and for that reason the territory is still disputed. Because of the disagreement, Japan and Russia never signed a peace agreement after the war.

For Japan, the return of the islands it calls the Northern Territories is about justice and honor. But Russians grew up believing that Soviet troops had honorably "liberated" the islands, even though the enemy had already surrendered and the liberated citizens were all deported.

The islands gave the U.S.S.R. access to straits connecting Russian waters with the Pacific Ocean and control over rich fishing grounds close to Japan. As soon as the islands were taken, Soviet authorities moved settlers there, initially to work in Japanese fish factories. Later the islands became a fishing base, and huge processing plants and worker dormitories were built.

Since last year's election of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, a judo black belt who has showed off his martial arts prowess while visiting Japan, Tokyo has stepped up its pressure for the islands' return. There have been reports of recent progress but no breakthrough.

"The entire population is up in the air. As citizens of Russia, we have no prospects," said Victor Sidorov, 44, a bulldozer driver, who favors the return of some islands.

Nina Kovalyova and her partner, Viktor Fomenko, 60, live in a rambling, tumbledown house in the hills of Shikotan, amid the ruins of worker dormitories.

She came to Shikotan in the late 1980s to process fish, drawn by the high salaries. But like many, she was trapped by poverty after the collapse of four of the island's six processing plants in the early 1990s.

At that time, she was passionately opposed to returning the islands to Japan.

"We still had hope then," she said. "In the past, everybody was against giving the islands back, but now everyone is in such a critical situation that the majority are in favor," she said. "There's no master here."

Beyond the rusty cans and garbage flung by Russian border guards across the cape on Shikotan known as Krai Sveta lies a view of breathtaking splendor. The name means "end of the world."

The sea, as clear as bottle green glass, heaves over immense black, rocky plates. The waves break in perfect arcs.

Inland, the island forest is a mystical fairyland with its drifting mists and long strands of green lichen that weep from the boughs of cypress trees.

The last symbols of Japanese settlement are wind-worn headstones flanked by delicate wild violets. Japanese whose relatives lived on Shikotan come by boat to visit the cemeteries.

By 1948, the Soviets had deported all of the original residents, mainly Japanese and Koreans, from the islands. Tamara Petrova, 68, remembers the Japanese children she had played with suddenly disappearing, and later the local officials redistributed the houses where they had lived.

"They were given 24 hours to leave. Then they were just loaded onto big barge-like boats," she said. "When the Japanese left, there were flowers growing along the river that they had planted. Now all this beauty has been turned into dumps and garbage sites.

"They completely fouled up and contaminated the place," said Petrova, referring to the years of Soviet and Russian rule. She believes that unless Russia can improve life on the islands, it should give them back.

Many here share that point of view, including Shikotan resident Vasily Susliv, 63. Standing in the road in the drizzling, foggy weather so characteristic of the Kurils, he railed against the Moscow authorities, waving his arms. He is convinced that the Japanese would restore order immediately.

After all, when the islands suffer power blackouts because of fuel shortages in the long winter, it is Japan that sends tankers with emergency aid, turning on the lights and heat again.

Japan restored the electrical power station on Shikotan after a 1994 earthquake destroyed the plant. The Japanese also built and equipped a modern medical clinic.

"We wouldn't need this humanitarian aid if our own government looked after its people and its workers," said Valentina Koltsina, 50.

Sidorov, the bulldozer driver, said Russian authorities are more interested in the value of the fish around the Kurils than the people.

"Since it's disputed territory, the Russian government doesn't finance the place or build new facilities," he complained. "It's not investing anything. I think they're clinging on out of force of habit."

According to Capt. Yevgeny Pavlovich Lazarev, 49, a Russian border guard stationed on Shikotan, the islands have strategic importance to Russia because of the straits that provide access to the Pacific. He contends that they also have great economic value because of fishing in the waters around the islands.

But the Japanese assert that the islands are of limited economic significance. To them, the key issue is Japanese sovereignty over the territory.

Most of the speculation about a potential return of the islands has centered on the possibility of Russia returning Shikotan and the Habomai chain, leaving Kunashir and the largest island, Iturup, in Russian hands. Tokyo, however, insists that Moscow must concede Japanese sovereignty over all the disputed islands before it will sign a peace treaty.

Japanese officials say they have avoided using aid or investment as a lever to pressure for the return of the islands. But given strong nationalist sentiments in Russia, Moscow is unlikely to surrender the islands unless it sees a significant gain. With Japan's flagging economy, it could be difficult for Tokyo to provide the kind of financial package Russia would expect in return.

Putin and then-Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori signed papers in the spring confirming a 1956 Soviet-Russian declaration that Shikotan and the Habomai chain would be handed back to Japan after the signing of a peace treaty.

But it was scant progress. In 1993, then-Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin had accepted this idea at a news conference. That it took more than seven years to get Yeltsin's verbal agreement onto paper suggests that the Japanese have a long and delicate process ahead.

Some islanders fear unfair treatment if the Japanese take over.

"Of course if the Japanese were in charge it would be better. But I wouldn't like these islands to be handed over to Japan, because this is our motherland," said Yulia Polozhenskaya, a young woman employed in a fish plant on Shikotan.

She and others worry that the Japanese would deport the locals, just as the Soviets did, although Japan promises it would take a flexible approach to residents.

"If the Japanese came over, what would I be doing? Would I be working? Or would I be cleaning up garbage?" she demanded.

But for many, the tantalizing promise of a better life outweighs the fear.

Koltsina traveled on a free boat to Japan last year and liked what she saw. The people were hospitable and the food reminded her of instant noodles, except spicier.

She saw a "land of plenty" with new cars, carefully tended flower beds and neatly mown lawns. The houses weren't fenced in with ugly strips of metal.

"We have such a rich country, but why is it that our life is so ugly and terrible?" she complained. "Why did the Japanese recover so quickly after the war, and why haven't we been able to, after so many years?"

Like many others, including Kovalyova and Sidorov, she said she would stay on if the Japanese took over.

Sidorov dreams of the life of an average Japanese citizen.

"I want to live like the Japanese," he said. "I'd have some financial prospects and the chance for my children to get a decent education and a better future."

Despite their misery, people who left the islands in the past are drifting back to live in the Kurils. The reason, locals say, is their hope for a Japanese takeover.

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Alexei Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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