Washington, 10 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The president of Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya says its people want it to be an independent, Muslim state because that's the only way they can find peace and prosperity.
Aslan Maskhadov made the statement Friday in Washington at the opening of the International Islamic Unity conference.
The three-day conference, called "World Peace for the 21st Century," is hosting over 25 religious leaders from Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia, Macedonia, several of the former Soviet republics and the Middle East.
Maskhadov told conference attendees that "independence is our right."
Maskhadov said he initially came to the United States only to speak at the conference. But he was also invited to meet with various American congressmen, businessmen and top officials during his visit. He said he will likely meet on Monday with Steven Sestanovich, the U.S. State Department's special adviser on the new independent states.
Maskhadov also said he was seeking foreign investment to help rebuild Chechnyas war-torn cities and villages. He said Russia has promised 250,000 million rubles in compensation to help re-build Chechnya. But he added that he was not optimistic Chechnya would see that money any time soon, given the current economic crisis in Russia.
As a result, Maskhadov said he asked Russian officials "not to disturb" or interfere with Chechnya's efforts to attract foreign investment. He said that while he has no concrete plan for redevelopment, Chechnya is actively seeking investors and would be willing to repay them with crude oil exports.
In regards to Russian-Chechnya relations, Maskhadov characterized them as progressive. He said that for the past 400 years, the relationship between the two peoples has been mostly adversarial.
But now, said Maskhadov, "we have the first opportunity to maintain good and friendly relations with each other."
Maskhadov said that during a meeting in August of 1997 with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, they agreed to "maximize the effort" to improve social, economic and political cooperation. Maskhadov said he also proposed that Russia and Chechnya begin relations at a diplomatic level.
Maskhadov said that he has assured Russian Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko that Chechnya is "doing its best" to protect the oil and gas pipelines that cut through the territory of Chechnya. He added that Chechnya is "not facing any problems" in regards to selling its own oil through the pipeline.
Maskhadov said he was in good spirits despite an assassination attempt against him last month. He says the fact that he survived, and is in Washington addressing Muslim leaders from around the world, undermines those who would like to destabilize Chechnya.
When asked whether the assassination attempt might trigger a civil war in the country, Maskhadov said there was no such danger and that "Chechnya will not become another Afghanistan or Tajikistan."
As Muslims, he said, Chechens deplore terrorism and extremism of any kind.