Photo/IllutrationAnama, Shikotan island, one of the disputed islands northeast of Hokkaido, is seen on Nov. 25, 2018. The number of new buildings is increasing, though roads have not been paved yet. (Vladimir Lavrinenko)

  • Photo/Illustraion

MOSCOW--Russia has been bolstering efforts to develop one of the disputed Northern Territories, in view of public opinion opposed to its potential return to Japan.

The disputed set of islands consists of the Habomai islets and the islands of Shikotan, Kunashiri and Etorofu, located off the coast of Hokkaido, which were seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II and claimed by Tokyo.

The development of Shikotan island compared with the latter two has come relatively late. But Japan and Russia summits on the islands issue since 2018 have made development of Shikotan a hot topic.

In particular, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in November 2018 to accelerate peace treaty talks.

Conscious of public opinion in Russia against returning the islands to Japan, the Russian government has promoted the attention it has been paying to the island and new investment plans have also emerged.

At the end of February, underwater optical cable was connected to the three islands, enabling the islanders to have high-speed Internet access.

Russia's national TV, which broadcast the opening ceremony for the connection held on Shikotan island, emphasized the government's commitment to the project, saying, "More than 3 billion rubles ($45.8 million, or 5.09 billion yen) were invested for this technically difficult project."

It also aired the happy voices of Shikotan islanders.

The TV station also repeatedly reported scenes showing Sergei Ivanov, the special representative of the president of the Russian Federation, saying, “We haven’t discussed the return of the islands at all (with Japan).”

According to the Russian RIA Novosti news agency, the Russian government is considering conducting three new projects related to tourism and housing construction in the island's special economic zone.

The estimated investment amount is 356 million rubles, with more than 200 employees expected to be hired.

Residents of Shikotan island have strongly complained that public investment has seen relatively little progress because of the prospect of the island being returned to Japan.

To assuage the concerns and calm Russians who are worried about the return, the Russian government has revealed new investment plans in rapid succession.

Despite all this, Putin hasn’t changed his positive stance toward Japan-Russia negotiations, leading the Russian public to doubt the situation.

The Sakhalin regional assembly, which has jurisdiction over the Northern Territories, has criticized Putin, saying that he is toying with Japan with his vague approach. Assembly members have thus started to call on the Russian leader to clearly reject the return of the island.