Thursday, January 10, 2019

Returning Kuriles to Japan Could Do for Putin in 2019 What Raising Pension Age Did in 2018

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 10 – The possibility that Vladimir Putin will agree to return the Kuriles to Japan, a step he clearly hopes will reduce Russia’s international isolation and bring in needed investment, has sparked anger across the Russian political spectrum and threatens to further drive down his approval rating among Russians.

            Indeed, returning the Kuriles, however useful geopolitically, could drive down Putin’s approval rating within Russia in much the same way his decision to raise the pension age did last year -- and to do so from a much lower base which means that this could leave him with vastly less popular support and thus drive him to seek other ways to boost his approval.

            There are few obvious opportunities for that; and consequently, facing the prospect of declining support and increasing protests by Russians as they connect the dots of his policies and link what he is doing abroad to the declines in their own standard of living, Putin could adopt an even more repressive approach, setting the stage for potentially violent clashes.

            Putin has only himself to blame. On the one hand, he has made the defense of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation a key part of his political program; and so it should not have been a surprise to him that Russians would reject returning the islands to Japan all the more so because they were trophies from what they call “the Great Patriotic War.”

            And on the other, he has had the opportunity to observe the problem in miniature when a deal Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov with Moscow’s backing forced on Ingushetia’s Yunus-Bek Yevkurov sparked a month of protests that have grown to include demands that Yevkurov leave office.

            Three of what are a flood of articles suggesting Putin may have already gone too far in talks with the Japanese about the Kurile islands include the following: First, the LDPR has introduced a draft bill in the Duma that would block any transfer without a referendum, something the Kremlin might very well lose (

            Second, commentator Sergey Udaltsov says picks up an argument Ingush opponents of the Yevkurov-Kadyrov accord have made: “the fate of the Kuriles,” he says, “must be decided by the people and not by Kremlin traders” who are willing to sacrifice the nation’s interests for their own (

            And third, Moscow political analyst Aleksey Makarkin says bluntly what many Russians appear to be thinking: “The people value the Kuriles more than the powers that be do;” and public opinion will block any concessions Putin may be ready to make to Tokyo on the matter (

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