The world will face countless challenges in 2014, but a few nations in flux stand out in the crowd. NBC News correspondents and writers explain how the outcome of wars, negotiations and elections in these countries could have a deep impact on their own populations and regions, and sometimes the world.
With the Taliban resurgent as most American and other foreign troops get ready to leave in 2014, desperately poor Afghanistan is a country riddled with fear and uncertainty.
"The mood is not good," said Wadeer Safi, who has been a professor of political science at Kabul University for 25 years. "Without Western support there will be chaos ... there is even potential for civil war."
Many believe that key to the country’s future is a U.S.-Afghan security agreement that would allow some American troops to remain in the country beyond 2014 and open the door to billions of dollars in foreign aid.
President Hamid Karzai has not signed the pact despite the unanimous endorsement of it at a recent meeting of tribal elders and other dignitaries.
The climate of uncertainty is taking a toll on the economy. Prices for food and fuel have rocketed, and unemployment is rampant. Foreign investment has stalled and with the economy almost entirely dependent on foreign aid, business confidence is very low.
There are even doubts that national elections scheduled for April will actually take place. Observers and Western diplomats are concerned that there will be delays, and agree that there will almost certainly be a run-off.
"We had war, we had brothers killing one another, and I don't want that to be repeated," said 44-year-old Kabul tailor Faiz Mohammed. "If the people in charge don't change, ordinary Afghans will suffer."
All eyes will be on Brazil as 32 teams and thousands of fans roll into the country for the soccer World Cup in June. And with viewership set to run into the billions, the event will bring extra scrutiny to Latin America’s most populous nation and the world’s sixth largest economy.
While the soccer euphoria will surely boost the government’s performance leading up to national elections in October, the possibility of turmoil at home will eventually determine the future of President Dilma Rousseff’s left-of-center government.
“If [the Brazilian team] loses, she would still be the front runner, but it’s not guaranteed,” said Dr. Jeff Garmany of the King's Brazil Institute in London. “There’s an informal correlation between the two.”
Authorities will surely be keeping close tabs on rising dissatisfaction among Brazil’s growing middle class. In 2013, thousands routinely took to the streets across the country to protest against extreme and growing income inequality, official corruption, teachers’ pay and even bus fares.
And many are furious that billions are being spent on soccer stadiums instead of schools, hospitals and social programs.
Last year protest groups like the Black Bloc snarled up routes into the stadiums during games, preventing fans from entering and resulting in thousands of empty seats. The group has threatened to do the same for the World Cup.
So will Brazil’s leaders manage to appease the population enough to ensure the population tunes into the games, and doesn’t again take to the streets?
“What Brazil does well is improvisation,” Garmany says. “So we’ll have to wait and see.”
In his first year in charge of the world’s second largest economy, China's President Xi Jinping made achieving the “Chinese Dream” a key goal. According to The New York Times, this dream means "national rejuvenation, improvement of people’s livelihoods, prosperity, construction of a better society and military strengthening.”
The Communist Party’s global ambitions carry with them raised expectations at home and abroad on how the country will handle issues ranging from the environment to regional rivalries.
Nearly a month of near-apocalyptic levels of air pollution in northern China in 2013 forced Beijing to acknowledge the toxic air plaguing much of the mainland. The government’s sudden willingness to address the environmental crisis shows the power of China’s growing urbanized middle classes, who are more aware of their rights than the country’s rural population.
Personal rights will still be on the agenda. Even with China’s much lauded announcement last month that “re-education through labor” camps would be abolished, a report from Amnesty International suggests that dissidents and activists will simply be railroaded into other existing forms of criminal detentions, like “black jails.”
Intimidation looks set to be part of China’s foreign policy toolkit. Carefully cultivated soft power appears to have gone out the window with Beijing announcing an Air Defense Identification Zone, infuriating neighbors Japan and South Korea, and forcing the U.S. into the debate over sovereignty in the East China Sea.
The introduction of more military hardware in response to regional ultra-nationalist tensions and virtually nonexistent rules of the sea contribute to the potential powder keg.
So having promised prosperity at home and power abroad, China will have to carefully navigate the suspicions of its neighbors, and its people’s blossoming expectations in 2014.
Will the Islamic Republic of Iran re-enter the mainstream of world affairs in 2014?
The answer to this question won’t only impact Iran’s future but that of the entire Middle East, where it is stuck in a struggle for pre-eminence with Saudi Arabia.
As part of that power play, Iran has been a sponsor of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, and has reportedly sent military advisers to Syria to help prop up the regime of President Bashar Assad, which is fighting a vicious war with rebel forces.
Iran took a massive step toward rapprochement with the United States and the West in 2013 when it signed a landmark agreement to curb its nuclear program in exchange for an easing of bruising sanctions.
If that stopgap deal unravels, Iran would be left struggling with more sanctions and possible turmoil at home. The worst case scenario could see the military intervening in the government, which could send ripples of unrest through its neighbors.
What would be ideal for Tehran is if it convinces the West that it isn’t building a bomb, and can keep most of its nuclear program. This way, it would get rid of most the sanctions and keep American influence at bay while averting strikes. The risk here is that Israel – which sees Iran as an existential threat – might take military action on its own.
Iran could go all the way and hand over its nuclear program in exchange for a complete lifting of sanctions.
The consequent influx of Western money and influence could produce Iran’s version of perestroika, the Soviet movement of reform that led to revolutions in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. Similar “openness” would surely spell surprises for Iran’s current leadership.
Russia will kick off 2014 on the ultimate high note as the host of the Sochi Winter Olympics.
“Putin came up with the idea of the Olympics as a massive project to show Russia has gotten up from its knees,” said political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin, referring to the turbulent times in the 1990s when the Soviet Union broke up.
As a PR project it may be working at home: Despite cost overruns and the alleged exploitation of migrant workers during construction of the installations, an estimated two-thirds of Russians support Russia hosting the Olympics.
Russia looks set to continue flexing its muscles on the world stage, too.
Following Moscow’s calls for the handover of chemical weapons in war-torn Syria, the government has worked with international authorities make sure they are handed over and destroyed. Moscow has also pushed for a resolution of Iran nuclear conflict – and the end of the U.S. sanctions against Tehran.
But while it is trying to project a strong image, the country is still plagued with problems at home and abroad.
Complaints about official corruption and human rights violations are top of the list. Even after Putin announced the release of jailed Russians on Dec. 19, including former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, two members of the convicted Pussy Riot punk group and dozens of Greenpeace activists, government’s critics still languish in jail.
Furthermore, the new year is also likely to see tighter control of the media and further suppression of criticism, as indicated by the recent liquidation of respected state-run news agency RIA Novosti and the creation of a new agency “Russia Today.” The state-controlled television channel by the same name is seen by many as a foreign-oriented propaganda tool for the Kremlin.
"Russia, and I think more generally Vladimir Putin in particular, cares more about prevailing in important international issues such as Syria or the issue of Edward Snowden or the issue of Ukraine," said Maria Lipman, analyst of the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "President Putin constantly sends signals that he will not accept any criticisms."
With the death of anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, one of Africa's most powerful economies and a beacon for the region marks the end of an era.
National elections in the spring will provide a test for the young democracy, with major issues like official corruption and economic inequality crippling Mandela’s dream of a “rainbow nation.”
Mandela’s reputation for integrity has not transferred to many political successors. President Jacob Zuma, ever-visible during the period of national mourning, was humiliated in front of the nation and visiting heads of state when he was booed at Mandela’s memorial.
Allegations that Zuma spent about $20 million in taxpayer funds on security upgrades to his private home is just one example of what’s wrong with the African National Congress (ANC), which Mandela once led. A leaked report by the top public corruption fighter said that Zuma had derived “substantial benefits” from the modifications.
“I don’t think I will vote ANC next year,” said Thabo Mosalo, a 19-year-old student who never knew apartheid. “The important question is what they are doing today, not what they did 30 years ago.”
Thabo isn’t alone. A survey for Johannesburg’s Sunday Times newspaper showed that 51 percent of registered ANC voters want Zuma out.
Poverty remains a major issue for the majority of black South Africans. The country has “one of the highest inequality rates in the world,” with blacks making up nine out of 10 of those in poverty, the World Bank says. A quarter of the population is unemployed, and a whopping one of every two people under 25 is without a job.
How the ANC grapples with economic and social challenges ahead without their symbolic leader is yet to be seen.
When Syrian President Bashar Assad first vowed to remain in office and maybe run for another term in 2014, few outside took the statement seriously. Since the beginning of the uprising, many analysts have seen it not as a matter of if the president will fall, but when.
Now Assad looks poised to have the last laugh, appearing stronger than at any point in the nearly three-year civil war. Not only is he set to run for another term, 2014 could be the year that defines the outcome of the civil war.
As extremist rebel groups gain ground in Syria, the United States and its allies are showing signs that they are suddenly reluctant to see Assad go.
“Our Western friends have made it clear … that Assad cannot be allowed to go now because they think chaos and an Islamist militant takeover would ensue,” a senior member of the Syrian opposition recently told Reuters.
Once sworn enemies, the regime and more moderate opposition rebels may find themselves huddled around a table trying to agree and end the fighting. Success may have little to do with the Syrians in the room and more to do with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Russia and the U.S., each of which are backing their own horse in the war with weapons, money and diplomatic cover.
Even if the violence were to stop on Jan. 1, it would take years for Syria to recover from the human catastrophe the war has triggered in the country and across the region. And if the humanitarian disaster wasn’t enough, the world will watch nervously as inspectors finish their task of dismantling and destroying Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons.