Hashim Thaci, who is bidding for a third term as prime minister in Sunday's election in Kosovo, is a former guerrilla known as "snake" who swapped combat fatigues for a politician's suit and now dreams of taking his country into the European Union.
The multi-lingual father-of-one has been a key player on Kosovo's political scene for more than a decade, making his name during the 1998-1999 war with Serbia as leader of the political wing of the pro-independence ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).
The tall, grey-haired 46-year-old has been prime minister since November 2007 and saw his popularity soar when he declared independence from Serbia just three months after winning election.
However, his image on the world stage has been tarnished by a 2010 Council of Europe report that linked him and a number of his associates to organised crime and organ trafficking during the war with Serbia -- charges he strongly denies.
Born on April 24, 1968, in the village of Buroje in the Drenica region of central Kosovo - a hotbed of ethnic Albanian separatism - Thaci was involved in passive resistance to the Belgrade authorities from the early 1990s as a student.
He later moved to Switzerland - home to a large Albanian nationalist diaspora - where he took postgraduate studies in international relations and history.
He quickly became frustrated by the policy of peaceful opposition to Belgrade followed by late Kosovo president Ibrahim Rugova and corralled other like-minded ethnic Albanians into an underground guerrilla army, the KLA, to take on the forces of then Serbia strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
He earned the 'nom de guerre' of "Snake" during the conflict and led the Kosovo Albanian negotiating team at the 1999 internationally brokered peace conference in France.
After the 1999 NATO intervention that ousted Serbian security forces and established UN administration over Kosovo, Thaci downed his guns and donned a suit, becoming known in the West as the "Gerry Adams of Kosovo", after his counterpart in Sein Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.
He won elections in November 2007 after the death the previous year of Rugova, who was regarded as the father of the nation and had proved unbeatable in all post-war elections.
Three months later, he declared independence from Serbia.
Not sure of victory
Thaci has since sought to promote tolerance and has urged the some 120,000 Serbs who stayed in the ethnic Albanian-dominated country after the war to integrate into Kosovo society.
"Kosovo does not belong only to Albanians," he said.
After his transition to a mainstream politician, he has cultivated a casual image, often dressing down and taking to Twitter and Facebook in a bid to attract younger voters.
Recently, he has devoted his energies to EU-brokered talks with his former foe Serbia that culminated in a landmark April 2013 deal to normalise ties.
After the marathon negotiations, he admitted that signing the agreement with Serbia was his "most difficult moment."
"People in this region are not used to reaching peace and we would have won more plaudits if we had failed to reach agreement," he said at the time.
Thaci, who speaks both English and German, has repeatedly said that his ultimate dream is to see his country of 1.8 million join the 28-member EU bloc.
His supporters see him as the only statesman able to lead the country to EU and NATO membership.
Throughout the campaign, Thaci trumpeted an economic plan known as the "New Mission", which aims to create 200,000 jobs in impoverished and corruption-ridden Kosovo.
"Our country needs a new mission with an energetic leadership with a vision," he said.
But much of the population of Kosovo, which suffers from 35-percent unemployment, is suspicious of these promises and remains disillusioned with a lack of economic progress amid rumours that his entourage has become hugely wealthy.
Ilir Mirena, a former political ally, believes Thaci is "not sure of victory" in Sunday's polls.
"Every handshake and gesture, every smile is an act of a panic-stricken guy faced with a looming defeat," said Mirena.