MOSCOW — Facing a rising storm in his government and legislature over a scheduled trip to Tokyo, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin on Wednesday abruptly called off the visit, dashing Japanese hopes for a rapid return of territories seized 47 years ago by the Red Army.
The suddenness of Yeltsin's decision left Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa and Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe reeling from a "big shock," Japan's NHK Television network reported.
The postponement of the four-day trip, which was to have started Sunday, showed that the Russian president has had no better luck forging a friendlier relationship with Japan than did former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
There was little doubt that it was Yeltsin's greatest foreign policy setback in his 14 months as Russian president. The Itar-Tass news agency said the decision highlighted the Kremlin's inability to "get a stable, serious dialogue going" with Tokyo.
Gorbachev twice postponed his trip to Japan. When he finally went, in April of 1991, he was unable to break the longstanding dispute over four islands at the southern end of the Kuril chain, the same tricky issue that has now waylaid Yeltsin.
The postponement of Yeltsin's trip to an unspecified date is an admission that going now would either disappoint the Japanese or incite Russian nationalists hungry for a popular cause.
Yeltsin has been evasive about where he stands on the rankling Russo-Japanese dispute over the islands.
"People at large are not ready now for any decision involving the giveaway of the smallest part of our country's territory that they may wrongly believe is indisputably ours," Father Gleb Yakunin, an Orthodox priest and progressive member of the Russian legislature, said.
Andrei V. Ostalsky, the foreign editor of the newspaper Izvestia, said members of Yeltsin's Security Council who are "directly connected to the military-industrial complex, intelligence and the former KGB" managed to persuade Yeltsin at the eleventh hour that it was senseless to go to Tokyo unless he was sure to achieve "concrete results."
Ostalsky did not name the members, but the lobbies he mentioned are led by Yevgeny M. Primakov, head of Russian foreign intelligence; Gen. Pavel S. Grachev, the defense minister; Viktor P. Barannikov, minister of internal security, and Yuri V. Skokov, secretary of the Security Council, a presidential advisory body.
"There is every reason to suppose that we are in for an imminent crisis in Russo-Japanese relations," Ostalsky added.
Japan has steadfastly made virtually all aspects of improved ties--from large-scale economic aid to conclusion of a peace treaty putting a formal end to World War II hostilities--contingent on the Kremlin's acknowledgment of Japanese sovereignty over the islands northeast of Hokkaido that were seized by the Soviet army in the final days of the war.
Democratic, post-Soviet Russia, Miyazawa declared last week, must "close the book on Stalinism by resolving the Northern Territories issue."
But in Russia, a rainbow coalition ranging from moderate legislators to generals, xenophobes and hard-line Communists clamors that the islands--Shikotan, the Habomai group, Etorofu and Kunashiri--are economically and militarily vital and that handing them over would just incite more territorial claims from Russia's other neighbors.
To emphasize the depth of support for the nationalists' cause, an "All-Russian Day for the Defense of the Kurils" is scheduled today in Moscow and other Russian cities, with pickets expected outside the Japanese Embassy.
Yeltsin called Miyazawa at 11 p.m. Tokyo time to inform him of his change in plans. Judging by a hastily called briefing given by Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Kato, Yeltsin blamed domestic problems for the postponement, and not dissatisfaction with Japan, but wasn't specific.
Kato said it is now up to the Russians to suggest a new schedule.
Yeltsin also scratched a trip to South Korea, scheduled for Sept. 16-18, that would have followed the Tokyo visit.
Press reports here said the Seoul trip would probably be joined with Yeltsin's state visit to China scheduled for December.
The statement from Yeltsin's press office said the decision to postpone the president's state visit followed "an exchange of opinions with leaders of the government, Supreme Soviet (legislature) and Security Council."
Most significantly, the action immediately followed a Security Council session that, judging by statements from Yeltsin's press secretary, Vyacheslav V. Kostikov, must have been especially contentious.
A statement from Yeltsin's press service assured Japan and South Korea that the president's shift in plans "does not affect the good-neighborly character of relations" with those countries.
But almost right away, Japanese sources began to voice keen displeasure; and much of the public will probably also be offended by the cancellation of Yeltsin's audience with the emperor, which is a grave breach of court protocol.