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Shcherbinina Julia, Kuril dispute as a means of domestic political struggle Печать E-mail
30.11.2012 г.
Julia Shcherbinina
Junior researcher
Dept. of Western Europe and America,
Institute of Scientific Information for Social Sciences
of the Russian Academy of Sciences (INION RAN)

Evolution of the Russian official position

Kuril dispute during all the history of its existence hasn't been exclusively a factor of USSR-Russia's foreign policy. Since the Kuril Islands' occupation by soviet troops in 1945, [6] according to the decision of the soviet leader, the investigated problem has acquired domestic political importance for the USSR. However, before the collapse of the Soviet Union this importance was of an implicit character. With the appearance of public policy and democratic procedures (elections, in particular) in early 1990 the time has come when first the domestic political importance of the Kuril dispute revealed distinctly. Since this period the evolution of the official position of Russia's government regarding the investigated problem attracted the attention of society, media, political parties and other political actors.

If approach to address the Kuril problem as just an issue of international relations, it is obvious that historical-legal, international-legal and political prerequisites for resolving problems do exist, but the political will is needed for the final settlement of the dispute. However, the evolution of Russia's official position shows that the Russian government hardly ever attempted to finally solve the problem. [2] The moment when the president and Ministry of Foreign Affairs were at their closest to the settlement of the Kuril dispute occurred in 1998, however, in consequence was signed the Moscow Declaration only, which confirmed the necessity of the settlement of the territorial dispute.[4] Nevertheless, the political will enough to resolve this dispute has not followed. The reasons were largely domestic political: opposition parties (including the Communist Party) used such actions of Russian government to discredit the government and increase their political capital. The government, for the ensure of its own preservation and continuity, has pulled away from the search for real opportunities to settle the dispute. This kind of behavior regarding the Kuril dispute was largely dictated by reasons of internal policy. Therefore, the Kuril dispute is presumably more a factor of domestic politics than of international relations.

Kuril dispute in party-political struggle 1993-2012

During the period of 1993-2012 there has been a clear trend of using the theme of the Kuril dispute as the means of electoral struggle by Russian political parties. During the parliamentary campaigns the problem has been used by the opposition parties of nationalist and traditionalist viewpoint as the means to discredit the government (in the 1990s), to mobilize the electorate by addressing the patriotic feelings of the citizens. [5] At the same time due to the evolution of Russian government's official position towards the moderate modernism (first half of the 2000s), then traditionalism (second half of the 2000s) regarding the Kuril dispute, the liberal and right-wing parties (Union of Right Forces and Yabloko, in particular) addressed the theme of Kuril dispute during the election campaign when criticizing the government for a departure from the deepening international cooperation and for creating obstacles to the integration of Russia into the global economy. The evolution of the position of the Russian government (including the different ‘in-power parties') regarding the problem also largely shows its desire to retain the power through the expression of the compromise position during the electoral activity, depriving their main political opponents an opportunity to significantly influence the electorate, rather than the desire to resolve this international problem. Finally, the Kuril issue has turned into one of the means of the struggle of political parties and other actors for the state power in Russia.

Russian electorate's relation to the Kuril dispute (as a whole and the various components of its social groups, 1992-2011)

The dynamics of the attitude of the Russian electorate towards the Kuril problem (the ratio of the various electoral groups - by age, gender, socio-professional status, income, etc.) in the review of surveys for the 1992-2011 period shows that:

- Gender differences are not the essential factor for the formation of the relation to the Kuril problem. [7]

- During the 1992-2011 period the following trend has remained: the respondents aged 60 and older are the most against the transfer of the Kuril Islands to Japan. They are conservative, lacking mobility and cautious of radical changes and reforms. There have been more respondents favoring the transfer of the Kuril Islands to Japan among young people. The most progressive has been the group aged 24-35.

- During the 1992-2011 period the following trend has remained: there are more respondents agree to transfer the Kuril Islands among people with higher level of education, than people with primary education level and below. [7]

- Among the respondent groups by occupation in the 1994-1999 period there are several interesting points:

1. More than others against the signing of the peace treaty and the transfer of the Kurils are the workers, housewives, pensioners, for the following reasons: a) age - pensioners are elderly and especially conservative and therefore oppose the transfer of the Kuril Islands to Japan. b) low literacy level - workers, as a rule, have lower level of education, are less informed, do not possess sufficient analytical capabilities and are not interested in political, economic, etc. matters. [7]

2. Since the early 1990s a trend of transition of entrepreneurs toward conservatism can be traced. Given 40% of entrepreneurs being in favor of the transfer of the Kurils to Japan in 1992, by 1994 this index had decreased to 9%, by January 1998 - to 7%, by October 1998 - to 5%. The change in the entrepreneurs' position regarding the Kuril dispute can be explained by the fact that in the early 1990s the business elite largely formed the basis of the "Russia's Choice" and "Party of Russian Unity and Accord" parties - the leaders in the 1993 elections - which were promoting radical transformations, and these parties considered the settlement of the Kuril dispute by transferring the Kurils to Japan an opportunity for the investment inflow and to enhance the financial cooperation with Japan. Also, it is necessary to note that the "new social stratum" (independent entrepreneurs, in particular) had the non-conservative way of thinking. The decreasing percent of the independent entrepreneurs agree for the Kuril Islands to be transferred to Japan is probably due to the fact that the benefit from the sacrifice of the islands for the sake of investment cooperation has become less obvious than before - the bilateral economic relations began to organize without the transfer of the Kuril Islands to Japan (e.g. the 1992-1993 bilateral trade growth). In addition, in the new political-economic reality (inter alia, the gradual affiliation of business with political structures) it became apparent that the entrepreneurs and companies sharing the non-traditionalist approach to such issues are politically doomed, and this sort of approach also entails the increasing business risks. [7]

3. The percentage of respondents agree to transfer the Kuril Islands to Japan has increased among the military servants from 4% (1994) to 6% (January 1998), and to 25% (October 1998). The decrease in percent of the respondents favoring the retainment of the Kuril Islands as the Russian territories among the military down to 70% can be explained by the fact that the loyalty of the military to the political leadership, when the government position had not yet finally formed, prevented this category of respondents from sharing the common position. [7]

In the groups of the respondents by occupation, in the period from 2000 to 2011, there has formed a consensus regarding the Kuril issue, and there can be observed a very high percent of respondents opposing the transfer of the Kuril Islands to Japan.

- During the 1992-2011 period the trend has, with minor deviations, remained: the wealthier the people are, the less negative their attitude to the transfer of the islands is, they are to a greater extent favoring the Islands' transfer than people with lower income level. [7]

Relation to the Kuril dispute as a factor of the Russian electorate's party-political orientation

The electoral support and the Kuril question in 1990s-2000s

1) In the presidential elections of the 1990s among the respondents voting for G.Yavlinsky, there is marked the highest percentage of respondents who were agree to transfer the Kuril Islands to Japan. On the contrary, among the respondents voting for V. Zhirinovsky, there was the highest percentage of respondents who were against the transfer of the Kuril Islands to Japan. And it is conforming to the laws of nature, because G. Yavlinsky was the representative of the cohort of "new thinking". He proposed to move away from the previous policies of the authorities, in particular with respect to the Kuril issue. In this period the modernist approaches to politics, economy and international relations were strong enough, and this modernism was supported by a large part of the Russian public at that time. The aforementioned part of society was the cornerstone of the electoral support for G.Yavlinsky in the 1990s elections. [7] On the other hand, V.Zhirinovsky has, from the beginning of the 1990s, been declaring himself as a fierce opponent of the destruction of Russia's territorial integrity, being the proponent of the need to take a tough stance on the issue of the Kuril Islands. It was his party's program where the first mention of the facts that the Kuril Islands are the territory of Russia and are no subject to a transfer to Japan could be found. In the pair of the 1990s presidential elections favorites G.Zyuganov-B.Yeltsin: among the voting for B.Yeltsin there was noted the highest percent of respondents being in favor of the transfer of the Kuril Islands to Japan. On the opposite, among the voting for G.Zyuganov, there was noted the highest percent of respondents, who were against the transfer of the Kurils to Japan. [3] Each leader had his own electoral base. However, it is worth noting the fact, that the position of B.Yeltsin regarding the Kuril dispute, though being quite radical, had not been stable. In the struggle for the electorate B.Yeltsin had been adjusting his viewpoint: in early 1990s he relied on the modernist part of the electorate in the Kuril issue, which was not radically against the transfer of the Islands to Japan. However, in order to attract the voters of the moderate point of view, he changed his position from radical to moderate more than once during his presidency.

2) By the 2000s among the furious supporters of the retainment of the Kuril Islands as the territory of Russia there were only the communist and nationalist leaders (however, V.Zhirinovsky, though included the Kuril issue in his political program, nevertheless, had repeatedly changed his attitude from a negative position regarding the transfer of the Islands toward a loyal one - upon condition that the deal would provide good economic bonuses to Russia from Japan). The rest of political leaders - the presidential candidates and key governmental officials (V.Putin, G.Yavlinsky, E.Primakov) - gradually became the supporters of the moderate position towards the Kuril dispute, speaking for the common rule over the Islands or for the partial transfer of the Islands to Japan. However, during the process of the formation of the "in-power party" in the middle 2000s the official position on the Kuril dispute had become tougher. This is reflected in frequent statements by the President and the members of government that the Kuril Islands are the native Russian land and their transfer to Japan is not possible.

By the end of the 2000s, the official position of the government, expressed by Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin was in general even tougher and more radical than the position of Gennady Zyuganov. Thus, D. Medvedev and V. Putin have deprived their main political rival -Zyuganov - of the opportunity to significantly influence the electorate through the Kuril issue and the problem of "patriotic discourse".

Since the mid-2000s, in the emerged monopoly on political power, the electorate is deprived of political choice and finds itself in a situation where any competition regarding the Kuril issue disappears, and the opposing leaders in the 2004 elections (Putin), 2008 (Putin, Zyuganov ) for the first time since the 1990s, have expressed the same viewpoint on the problem.

Parliamentary elections

1) Since the beginning of the 2000s, there has been evolving the split of the party elite in respect to the Kuril issue and three main viewpoints have formed: to keep the Kurils within Russia's borders, to transfer the islands to Japan or to organize a common rule over the islands. The most against the transfer of the Kuril Islands to Japan has been the electorate of KPRF (the Communist Party), in favor of the transfer of the islands have been mostly the supporters of Soyuz Pravykh Sil (the Right-Wing Union) - the party which was formed in 1999 and had brought together a significant part of the radical reformist and the moderate powers of the early 1990s (Democratic Party of Russia, Common Matter Party, Democratic Russia), in favor of the common rule have been the supporters of the "Rodina" ("Motherland") party. [7]

2) By the mid-2000s a sort of a "consensus" regarding the Kuril issue has begun to take shape within Russia's society. This is due primarily to the formation of the ‘in-power party' (the "United Russia"), whose position regarding the Kuril issue is identical to the position of the executive power branch. By creating a pro-government party, establishing the federal districts, harmonization of regional legislation and so on, the government of Russia has achieved an almost complete control over the electoral process. Deprivation of the other parties of participation in elections (by introducing a 7% barrier, by the use of administrative resources) has lead to the fact that the viewpoints of the majority of voters are not represented, consequently, there is such a situation where among the parties eligible to participate in elections there is almost no opposition to the current ‘in-power party'.

Regarding the Kuril issue, the parties share the same viewpoint. For example, in the recent State Duma of the Russian Federation election (2011) among the voting for the Communist Party (91%) and Fair Russia (91%), United Russia (90%), the Liberal Democratic Party (87%), the majority of respondents opposed the idea of transfer of the Kuril Islands to Japan. The only party whose electorate could take an alternate position to the current government's one is the Right Cause. [7]

Of voting for the Right Cause party in the 2011 elections, a high percentage of respondents (27%) were in favor of the transfer of the Kuril Islands to Japan. However, the fact that the party has been registered for the election (the registration inquiry of a party with a stronger electoral support - the "Yabloko" party - was denied) may mean the political weakness of the Right Cause party, and also a lack of will to take the lead. The party was very unlikely to acquire seats in the State Duma, as the Right Cause had not formed enough electoral base. In the elections of 2011 the Right Cause party came last and won 0.6% of votes. [7]

In this way, the theme of the Russian-Japanese territorial dispute is used in the electoral struggle of Russia's political actors (the government and the parties). However, the "Kuril issue" does not play a fundamental role in the Russian electoral politics, at the same time playing a significant role in the efforts to manipulate the mass consciousness.

As A.Fesyun has observed, the main mistake of the Russian side in the territorial dispute is the fact that the Russian government always "use the new words, which gives room for conjecture and speculation". In fact, "no Russian president is going to transfer to Japan any of the Kuril Islands", this topic is just a tool used to reach the internal political struggle objectives.


1) Is Putin Ready to Give South Kuriles to Japan? By I.A. Zhdakayev - Duma, February, 19, 2003. Available from (in Russian):

2) Latyshev I.A. (2001): Japan, the Japanese, the Japanologists. Moscow. 823 p. - ISBN 5-9265-0025-7

3) KPRF Party Program. Available from (in Russian):

4) Moscow declaration "On Establishing a Creative Partnership between Japan and the Russian Federation", 13 November, 1998. Available from:

5) The Democrats Have Prepared Better Than the Opponents by Y. Yanayev. - Kommersant, #214 (437), November, 6, 1993. Available from (in Russian):

6) Soviet Occupation of the Kuril Islands (August-September 1945).The Documentary Research. Moscow. 1993. 144 p.

7) VCIOM Surveys for the 1992-2011 Period

  • The All-Russian Public Opinion Poll, June, 15, 1992. Available from:

  • The All-Russian Public Opinion Poll, December, 21, 1994. Available from:

  • The All-Russian Public Opinion Poll, January, 15, 1998. Available from:

  • The All-Russian Public Opinion Poll, April, 15, 1998. Available from:

  • The All-Russian Public Opinion Poll, October, 15, 1998. Available from:

  • The All-Russian Public Opinion Poll, March, 15, 2002. Available from:

  • The All-Russian Public Opinion Poll, December, 15, 2002. Available from:

  • The All-Russian Public Opinion Poll, October, 21, 2005. Available from:

  • The All-Russian Public Opinion Poll, July, 19, 2009. Available from:

  • The All-Russian Public Opinion Poll, December, 05, 1992. Available from:

  • The All-Russian Public Opinion Poll, May, 15, 2011. Available from:\
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