Soviet Union lingers in heart of Tokyo

MOSCOW - It would seem that "territories" of the Soviet Union still exist in central Tokyo. The former geopolitical entity, dissolved in 1991, still nominally owns real estate, such as its embassy and other offices, in prime Tokyo locations because Ukraine, the second-most populated republic of the former Soviet Union, has been opposing the transfer of their ownership to today's Russia.

Though governments of the other countries have allowed real estate under the name of the Soviet Union to be transferred to Russia, Tokyo said it is waiting for an agreement over the issue to be reached between Russia and Ukraine.

Since disputes between members of the former Soviet Union have been fueled further with conflicts in eastern Ukraine and Russia's annexation of Crimea, the real estate is likely to remain in limbo for the time being.

The Embassy of the Russian Federation in Japan is located in the Azabudai district of Minato Ward, near Tokyo Tower. Its huge plot of land surrounded by high walls covers 10,325 square meters. The land was purchased by the then Soviet Union in December 1927. Its owner is still registered as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

According to benchmark land prices announced Thursday by the Tokyo metropolitan government, the value of land in a commercial area in the Higashi-Azabu 1-chome district of Minato Ward near the Russian Embassy has reached ¥2.33 million (S$27,000) per square meter.

According to Russian diplomatic sources, there are more than 10 real estate assets still registered to the former Soviet Union. In addition to the embassy, the office of the Trade Representation of the Russian Federation is located in a prime residential area in the Takanawa district of the ward, and a recreational facility attached to the embassy is in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture.

Around 2008, Russia planned to redevelop the aging building of the Trade Representation of the Soviet Union, which now accommodates the Trade Representation of the Russian Federation. But, the plan failed due to the dispute over ownership.

The Soviet Union and the United States were the world's two superpowers during the Cold War period. The Soviet Union broke up into 15 countries that negotiated how to divide the Soviet Union's property.

As a result, most of the countries signed accords in December 1994, under which Russia would take over all assets and debts of the former Soviet Union in other countries. The assets included embassies and the offices of the Soviet Union's state-run airline.

Only Ukraine's parliament did not ratify the accord, which had already been signed. The country is still opposing the transfer of assets to Russia.

Based on the percentage of Soviet gross domestic product Ukraine contributed in 1991, Ukraine demands 16 per cent of the Soviet Union's assets to be distributed to the country.

A senior official at Ukraine's foreign ministry said: "The Soviet Union's assets were larger than its debts. Russia intended to monopolize the assets."

The official insisted that even after deducting the debts from the assets, there should be assets that should be handed over to Ukraine.

A Russian diplomat who engaged in the negotiations with Ukraine countered: "Russia repaid all the debts of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union's assets belong to Russia."

The two countries have continued disputes across the world over the asset-sharing issue, but many other countries, including the United States, transferred ownership to Russia at their governments' discretion.

Assets held in the name of the Soviet Union remain in only a few countries, including Japan. The Japanese government had hoped to avoid getting caught in a bind between the two countries.

An official at the Japanese Foreign Ministry's Russian Division took a wait-and-see position, saying, "To resolve the problem, an agreement between the two sides is necessary."