Soviet Pledges to Tokyo Fall Short Ambiguous Promises Have Left Japan Unsure as to What Was Achieved during Gorbachev Visit

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A VAGUE outcome to last week's Japan-Soviet summit has let both sides off the hook of making promises neither can yet fulfill.

President Mikhail Gorbachev ended his four-day visit to Japan by endorsing only obliquely a 1956 Soviet pledge conceding territory to Japan. Prime Minister Toshiski Kaifu, meanwhile, offered only an ambiguous "balanced expansion" of assistance for the Soviet economy.

Giving away Soviet soil at this time would have hurt Mr. Gorbachev's ability to rein in breakaway Soviet republics or his precarious stand with domestic hard-liners, his aides say. Japan is seeking a return of four northern islands occupied by the Soviet Army just after World War II.

Japan's leaders, in turn, avoided pledging the large-scale economic aid that they link to a return of the islands. Such Japanese largess would have put it out of sync with Washington, which is trying to restrain aid to Moscow until market reforms are in place. Also, with the chance of another crackdown in the Soviet Union, Japan was wary of appearing to embrace the Soviet economy.

Rather, with a "breakthrough" seen as unlikely before the summit on both the questions of territory and aid, the two sides instead noted that this first-ever visit to Japan by a Soviet leader achieved its primary goal of lessening historic animosity and promising more high-level talks.

"The fact that Gorbachev came to Japan at all and acknowledged the island issue are the most important points," said a leading politician, Kiichi Miyazawa. Before this, Moscow refused to talk about the dispute. Ambiguous Agreement

Still, the ambiguous wording in the summit's joint statement concerning the islands - hammered out over nine hours of sometimes sharp dialogue between Gorbachev and Mr. Kaifu - could cause future rankling between Moscow and Tokyo. The statements refer only to "positive elements" made in a 1956 joint declaration that set postwar relations between the two nations. To Japan, the key aspect of the declaration (which Moscow abandoned in 1960 when Japan signed a security treaty with the United States) was a Soviet promise to return two of the four islands after a peace treaty was signed.

Just after signing the summit's joint statement, Gorbachev tried to play down Japanese rumors that he had fully endorsed the 1956 declaration.

"We accepted those parts in the joint declaration that have produced results from a viewpoint of international law," he said. "But we did not revive what has not come into existence or what has lost a chance."

During his April 16-19 visit, Gorbachev referred to the Stalin-era taking of the islands as a mistake "by people of different generations who did not see things the way we do," but that past decisions "should not be hastily corrected. …