IRKUTSK, Russia (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori began talks in Siberia on Sunday over four rocky islands that have kept their countries from signing a World War Two peace treaty.
The meeting in Irkutsk, near vast Lake Baikal, will be rich with symbolism, and neither side expects much more than symbolic progress on a dispute that is acknowledged to be an emotional issue with nationalist lobbies ready to exploit anything that might be seen as a concession.
Russia seized the islands, lying 15 km (nine miles) off Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido, in the last days of the war. Japan has demanded the four, which it calls the Northern Territories, back ever since, calling it an issue of national pride.
Although the islands lie 1,000 km (600 km) north of Tokyo and are of little strategic and economic value, they have been the centre of decades of torturous talks and broken promises.
The two countries pledged in 1997 to sign a peace treaty by the end of 2000, but failed.
Before Sunday's two-hour session and working lunch, Mori went to the Russian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and laid flowers.
Putin flew into Irkutsk after talking with European Union leaders in Sweden and facing Russia's latest encounter with deadly violence on its volatile southern flank.
On Saturday, a series of bomb blasts killed 21 people and injured 142 near Russia's rebel Chechnya region.
Mori, almost certain to leave office soon, told reporters on his way to Irkutsk on Saturday that he hoped that talks would produce a new impetus to solve the dispute over the islands
"I hope our negotiations will be a new stimulus and a new turning point," Mori said before arriving to a low-key welcome in sub-zero temperatures.
A 1956 DECLARATION
He said the two sides would reaffirm their commitment to a 1956 declaration under which Moscow agreed to hand back two islands once a peace treaty was signed.
"We will use the 1956 declaration as the basis for negotiations to get all four islands back," he said.
"Our ultimate aim is to get the islands back but we are not so naive to think this is going to happen any time soon. It took 50 years to get this far," a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said.
He said signing a joint statement with a commitment to the 1956 declaration represented a step forward as Russia had previously agreed to it only orally. "In diplomatic terms this is considered progress which will lead to the next stage of negotiations," he said.
The Russians have only described the 1956 declaration as "one of several ways to pursue a solution".
Moscow has been wary of creating a precedent by handing over territory a decade after communist rule collapsed and Kremlin leaders found themselves presiding over a smaller landmass.
The Japanese official said the talks would also focus on international issues, including U.S. plans for a missile defence shield opposed by Russia because of what it sees as a danger to upholding the landmark 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
Attempts to reconcile South Korea and the communist North would also be raised. "The Cold War may be over in Europe, but not completely in Asia and we have to deal with the vestiges," he said.
Another highlight of Mori's two-day stay is likely to be a visit to a memorial in a nearby town where some of his Russophile father's ashes are buried.