03/16/2011, 00.00
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Moscow’s disaster diplomacy

by Nina Achmatova
The Kremlin offers Tokyo energy supplies and humanitarian aid after the quake, opening the door to peace treaty talks and reconstruction contracts.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – Russia is coming to the rescue of post-tsunami Japan. Until recently, Moscow saw Tokyo as an implacable enemy prone to extremism over the South Kuril Islands, a Russian-occupied archipelago claimed by Japan. Now the Russians are coming, bringing not only humanitarian and 180 rescue workers, but also nuclear technicians from Rosatom, Russia’s atomic agency. It has also offered its neighbour new energy supplies to compensate for the losses caused by the nuclear incident at the Fukushima plant. By extending a helping hand, it can foresee post-quake reconstruction contracts when Japan will need metals and other materials in large quantities.

President Dmitri Medvedev said that talks are underway over gas, electrical power and coal. “Despite the fact that contracts have already been signed on these products, it's a situation when partners can meet each other halfway,” the Russian leader explained.

In an initial appraisal of Japan’s post-tsunami energy need, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin noted that nuclear power represented 30 per cent of Japan’s consumption, with gas at 17 per cent and coal at 22 per cent.

Because of the nuclear incident, matters will change. In fact, Russian energy giant Gazprom is already planning to increase its supplies of liquefied natural gas to Japan by 100,000 tons in April and May, whilst Russia’s Far East could deliver about 6,000 megawatts of electricity to Japan given its surplus in output, Sechin said. Moscow also plans to ship more coal.

The time is apparently ripe for “disaster diplomacy” with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov showing more openness to a peace treaty with Tokyo, an act not signed yet since the end of the Second World War because of the dispute over the South Kuril Islands. The head of Russian diplomacy had in fact placed flowers in front of the Japanese Embassy in Moscow, a site used by Russian nationalists to stage demonstrations.

Few analysts are willing to bet whether talks might lead to a peace treaty in the near future. However, the disaster will make it a non-issue for at least the next one to two years, said Alexander Lukin, a Japanese expert at Moscow International Affairs University.

The estimated cost of the disaster so far is US$ 35 billion, a figure bound to soar far higher in the coming days. For Vladimir Zhukov, an analyst at Japan's Nomura Holdings, Russia's steelmaker Evraz and coal producer Mechel may profit as Japan increases imports to rebuild its infrastructure and buys more fossil fuels to substitute for nuclear power.

In the meantime, radioactive leaks from Fukushima have spooked Moscow. Today the authorities have started to prepare evacuation plans for the residents of Sakhalin and Kuril Islands, the latter being at the core of the territorial dispute between the two countries.

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