Chechen authorities celebrated the 30th birthday of the Russian region's powerful prime minister Thursday with choreographed events casting the Moscow-backed strongman as the engine of recovery from more than a decade of conflict and chaos.
Ramzan Kadyrov stepped back from suggestions he could take over as Chechnya's president now that he has reached the constitutionally mandated legal age. Nevertheless, the celebrations underlined the clout of the controversial figure who is the linchpin of Kremlin efforts to turn the rebellious region into a loyal component of the country.
Kadyrov has been hailed for efforts to rebuild Chechnya and has been at the heart of a Kremlin strategy to crush continued rebel resistance and establish order in the mostly Muslim region. But he is tainted by widespread accusations of abuse by security forces under his control, and his growing power raises questions about the region's future.
Ceremonies began with the opening of a massive arch marking the entrance to the capital, Grozny. They continued with the arrival of the first passenger plane at the newly restored airport, which has been out of service since 1999, when the Kremlin launched its second war in Chechnya since the Soviet collapse.
"Triumphal arches are built when one is victorious, and today this means the end of years of disorder in the republic," said Aslanbek Aslakhanov, an adviser to President Vladimir Putin on Chechnya. Kadyrov, he said, "has been able to do what many could not _ shift the republic from military components to a peaceful track."
Despite signs of a gradual return to normality as authorities pour hundreds of millions of dollars (euros) into reconstruction of infrastructure and ravaged buildings, civilians remain in fear of kidnappings and other abuses often blamed on Kadyrov's forces.
Analysts say the premier, who has trimmed rebel ranks by coaxing or coercing militants to switch sides and join law enforcement structures, is at the center of a volatile web of former rebels and competing security forces that could explode into severe violence if destabilized.
"Without Ramzan, any system of stability that exists in Chechnya will be in serious question," Alexei Makarkin, of the independent think-tank Center for Political Technologies, said on Ekho Moskvy radio.
Russian forces entered Chechnya in 1994 but withdrew after a devastating 20-month war that left rebels in charge, then returned in 1999 and drove the separatist leadership from power. While fighting persisted, Kadyrov's father Akhmad Kadyrov was elected as Chechnya's first pro-Moscow president in 2003, but was assassinated the following year.
Along with his late father, Kadyrov is the subject of a growing personality cult, his face pictured on posters and banners that hail him as "a worthy leader of the Chechen people," among other things.
Amid widespread speculation that he could take over from the current Chechen president when he reached the minimum age of 30, Kadyrov denied he had any intention of becoming president before Alu Alkhanov's term ends in 2008, Russian news agencies reported.
"We have an elected president of the republic, and until his term comes to an end, I think it is too early to speak of me as a candidate for the post," ITAR-Tass quoted Kadyrov as saying.
Last week, Kadyrov had left the door open for an early presidential bid, telling journalists he would take stock of the situation at year's end and follow the will of the people.
Alkhanov could be replaced if he resigned or were disabled, but some observers say the Kremlin, fearing a loss of control, is unlikely to further boost Kadyrov's clout by maneuvering him into the job.
Makarkin said the Kremlin may worry about the limits of loyalty for Kadyrov _ who has praised Putin but harshly criticized the Russian government, calling for greater economic freedom and a larger share of Chechen oil revenues.
"Russia is now strong and he is oriented toward Russia, but what will happen if Russia weakens and there is no alternative to Ramzan in Chechnya?" Makarkin said. "He will no longer ask, he will demand."
Both Kadyrov and Alkhanov met the Tu-134 jet that arrived from Moscow with Kadyrov's sister among the passengers. Kadyrov said regular passenger flights would begin in a week and that the airport would be ready for international flights in six months.