It has been a long, slow rise to the centre of the world stage for Franjo Tudjman, Croatia's 73- year-old leader and the self-proclaimed father of the nation. He is, he never tires of saying, the man who realised "Croatia's 1,000-year-old dream of independence".
It has been a roller-coaster of a career with extraordinary peaks and troughs, from communist ideologue - Tito's youngest general - to imprisoned nationalist, and finally, the first president of independent Croatia at the age of 69, when most people's thoughts dwell on retirement.
His roots are in Zagorje, the rich wine-growing region of northern Croatia where Tito also grew up. His father was active on the left of the pre- war Peasants Party, which fought for Croatian home rule. When the Germans invaded Yugoslavia in 1941 it was natural for 19-year-old Franjo to join the communist-led partisans in the fight against German occupation and the fascist Ustashe puppet state they set up in Croatia. In May 1945 Tudjman was part of the victorious First Zagreb Division which marched into the Croatian capital. By now a true communist, he won a job vetting officers' ideology in the Military Academy in Belgrade.
Comrade Tudjman's faith in Yugoslavia was tested in the 1950s, when he ran up against the arrogance of the Serbian officer corps in the Academy. He was angered by the way he thought the Serbs denigrated Croatia's contribution to the war and by the stress they placed on the number of Serbs killed by Croat fascists.When he left Belgrade for Zagreb in 1963 as a major- general, to run a historical institute, his studies confirmed his conviction that Croats were being exploited in the new Yugoslavia, just as in the old. His evolution from communist to Croat nationalist was almost complete by 1967, when he signed a controversial petition insisting that Croatian was a separate language from Serbian.
Tudjman was expelled from the Party for his imprudence. But in the nationalist ferment of Croatia in the late 1960s, he had free rein to flesh out his theory on how the Serbs were deliberately exaggerating their human losses in the war on a popular newspaper, Hrvatski Tijednik.
When Tito cracked down on Croat nationalists in 1971, he sacked the party leadership and had Hrvastki Tijednik closed. Tudjman was sentenced to two years in jail. Now a confirmed dissident, he repeated his views on the Serbs' wartime casualties to foreign journalists. This won him another three years in jail.
When Yugoslav communism crumbled in the late 1980s, the elderly Tudjman returned from the political margins. As the winds of nationalism blew throughout Yugoslavia, Tudjman's views were no longer extreme. In 1990 he founded a party. In Croatia, old communists felt safe in the hands of an old partisan general. The nationalists, including wealthy exiled Ustashe sympathisers in the US and Canada, admired a man who had served time for patriotic convictions. Most Croats wanted a father figure to keep Slobodan Milosevic, the frightening new leader of Serbia, at bay. In Croatia's first free elections in 45 years, in the spring of 1990, Tudjman's supporters romped home with 42 per cent of the votes, taking two-thirds of the seats in parliament.
In office he disappointed his supporters. As Milosevic's demands grew more extreme, Tudjman busied himself with erecting statues, and designing flags and uniforms for his guards outside the Bans Palace in Zagreb. An intolerance of criticism made his talk of Croatia's "young democracy" sound hollow. Above all, his election-time rhetoric about putting the Serbs in their place returned to haunt him when militants from the Serb stronghold of Knin launched an armed insurrection in August 1990, with the backing of Milosevic and the Yugoslav army.
Most Croats wanted a leader who could combat Milosevic. Instead, Tudjman appeared meek when he met Serbia's bullish supremo at summits. He only declared independence from Yugoslavia under pressure, when the Serbs had already seized one- third of Croatia's territory. When his advisers pleaded for all-out war with the Yugoslav army in June 1991, he would not hear of it. "Are you crazy? We would have 100,000 dead in weeks," he snapped at a press conference. Instead he entered into partnership with Milosevic to carve up Bosnia.
His saving graces are a willingness to scrap policies that don't work and a conviction that Croatia must join the West. When the Croat-Muslim war in central Bosnia went badly in 1993, and he was threatened with sanctions, he made a U-turn and allied with the Muslims. At home he has kept a tight rein on extremists and held together an unlikely coalition of old partisan communists, Catholics, the descendants of the Ustashe and free-market liberals.
He is already assured of a place in history as the man who broke the 11th century curse of King Zvonimir, who, as he lay dying in Knin, allegedly condemned his fellow countrymen to 1,000 years of foreign rule.
Now he wants more and is rolling the dice, gambling on a military bid to end the Serbian insurrection that has impoverished Croatia.
If it succeeds, expect more splendid uniforms, gold brocade and military parades. If it fails, the attempt to pass himself off as a successor to Tito will look absurd, and the career of Croatia's great gambler may be over.