By Amie Ferris-Rotman
GROZNY, Russia (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin stares from a dozen pictures on rooftops and facades along Putin Avenue in a Chechen capital sparkingly rebuilt from ruins left by the troops he sent to quell rebellion a decade ago.
While an opulent facelift has removed the physical scars of war, Chechens fear Putin's return to Russia's presidency next year could mean a turn for the worse for the Muslim republic.
Devastated twice in two decades in offensives Moscow launched to keep Chechnya in Russia, Grozny has been transformed by a reconstruction funded by the Kremlin and overseen by Ramzan Kadyrov, the regional strongman Putin put in place to maintain control.
The city hosts Europe's largest mosque, which gleams with Swarovski crystals, a multi million-dollar soccer stadium built to global standards and a skyscraper complex unveiled at a glitzy ceremony attended by Hollywood stars last week.
Blocks of flats have been refurbished inside and out, with just a few pockmarks hinting at their shell-pounded past.
Some in Grozny see this re-emergence of a devastated city, and the peace that made it possible, as tribute enough to Kadyrov, whatever the reservations about his overbearing style.
But beneath the glitter lurks fear that Kadyrov's burgeoning personality cult will not only persist with Putin back in the Kremlin but could intensify, leading to a further clampdown of freedoms.
Rights groups and other Chechens accuse Kadyrov of overseeing torture, curbing women's rights and other civil freedoms guaranteed by Russia's constitution, and running the region as a fiefdom where opponents are chased and targeted with violence.
"I only have bad, very harsh things to say," a 26-year-old Chechen said of Putin's plan to return to the presidency, the position he held from 2000-2008, in a March 2012 vote.
Standing with friends under a large portrait of Putin on one of the pastel-toned facades on Putin Avenue, the educated youth agreed to talk to Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"There certainly weren't pluses for Chechnya when he was president last time. We know we live in a totalitarian regime with Ramzan (Kadyrov), and there is nothing we can do," said the man, dressed in blue moccasins and jeans.
His friend, who is studying for a Masters degree, echoed his sentiment: "If I tell you how I really feel about these two I'll get shot," as he pointed to another photo of Putin across the road, hanging next to a beaming Kadyrov.
Kadyrov, who was installed by the Kremlin in 2007, was sworn in to a new five-year term in April. Putin, all but certain to win the election, would be president until 2024 if he serves the legal maximum of two straight terms.
The Chechen war Putin launched as prime minister in 1999 helped boost his popularity before Boris Yeltsin resigned on the last day of that year, making him president.
Subsequently elected twice, he is broadly popular across Russia after presiding over an oil-fueled economic boom that improved living standards and restored wounded national pride.
He installed Akhmad Kadyrov, Ramzan's father, to lead Chechnya after federal forces drove its separatist government from power, but the elder Kadyrov was assassinated in a 2004 bomb attack.
"Putin is connected to the Chechens, we are connected to him," said Ismail Baykhanov, Chechnya's election commission chief, saying his ties to the late Akhmad Kadyrov work in Putin's favor.
"A lot depends on personality, a lot," he told Reuters.
But Putin's connection to Chechnya is precisely what some other Chechens fear.
"Now Putin is coming back, maybe for 12 years, means there is no hope for Chechnya," said Tanya Lokshina, Russia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).
"Quite a few people in Chechnya, especially the young, are appalled by what Kadyrov is doing and how he meddles in family affairs," she told Reuters, pointing to rising frustration at abductions, torture and the violent enforcing by authorities of Islamic dress codes including headscarves for women.
Rights groups say Kadyrov, a devout Sufi Muslim, has been allowed to introduce Islamic-style laws, including a virtual alcohol ban, in exchange for maintaining relative stability in Chechnya and keeping a growing Islamist insurgency across the North Caucasus in check.
Lokshina said this has backfired, and Kadyrov's "almighty and all-powerful" status has led Chechen youths to join the insurgency, which is particularly intense in neighboring Dagestan.
"There is tremendous injustice, complete impunity for the ongoing crimes, and no outlet for the young. They can't peacefully protest or even talk to media," she said.
"Put simply, the situation is bad and will only get worse. He (Kadyrov) won't go as long as Putin's here," said one of the young men on Putin Avenue.
For others in Grozny, however, the absence of war trumps limitations on freedom.
"As long as there is no more war, all this can happen but just no more war," said logistical manager Kamisa, adjusting her black and silver headscarf.
"I LOVE YOU MR. KADYROV"
Concerns over human rights abuses loomed over an opulent ceremony on October 5 when Hollywood stars helped Kadyrov celebrate his 35th birthday by unveiling four silver Turkish-built office towers in the center of Grozny.
Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank lavished birthday wishes on Kadyrov and provoked giggles of satisfaction from the ginger-bearded leader when she told him that "people here are better dressed than in New York."
Rights activists said the ceremony, which closed with a fireworks display around the skyscrapers to Kadyrov's repeated shouts of "Allahu Akbar! (God is great)," was evidence of a growing personality cult around the leader.
Posters showing his smiling face are affixed to hundreds of structures throughout Chechnya, from apartment buildings to petrol stations.
"I love you Mr. Kadyrov, I love you with all my heart," Belgian martial artist and actor Jean Claude Van Damme, dressed head-to-toe in black with purple sunglasses, told Kadyrov.
The arrival of the celebrities, also including Singapore-born violinist Vanessa Mae and British singer Seal, came as a surprise to spectators.
The Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights wrote an open letter to entertainers including Swank and Mae before the party, asking them to reconsider.
"Mr. Kadyrov's policy promotes the state of constant fear among the population and political opponents," the letter said, adding that "serious violations of human rights are continuously committed by the Chechen authorities."
It also pointed to accusations by authorities in Vienna and Dubai that Kadyrov has been involved in killings of his opponents abroad, claims he has denied.
Human Rights Watch urged the celebrities to return any money or gifts they may have received for attending the celebration, saying Kadyrov "presides over law enforcement and security agencies that have been implicated in abductions, torture, and executions of those suspected of involvement in the Islamist insurgency in Chechnya."