A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL
January 1 marked more than the start of a new year. It was also the day that many institutions handed over their rotating presidencies from one country to another. Sometimes it's a good fit. Sometimes...not so much. RFE/RL looks at four odd presidencies to watch in 2014.
GREECE -- EU
The European Union has spent the past three years bailing out Greece, providing, together with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), more than $320 billion in loans and aid to save the struggling Mediterranean economy from complete collapse.
So there's a certain irony to the fact that for the next six months, Athens will hold the EU Presidency -- even as the 28-member bloc moves to decide whether to extend yet another aid package to Greece.
Antonis Samaras, the Greek prime minister, has said that painful austerity measures have paid off and that 2014 will bring "the prospect of normality" and an end to bailouts.
But it's a risky pledge. Mindful that Athens will spend the next half-year in the EU spotlight, Samaras has urged fractious Greek lawmakers to continue with reforms to prevent the economic crisis from boiling over into riots or government collapse.
"I ask you all to leave behind all the things that have been holding us back, and with decisiveness and courage to finish what we started.... I ask you to strengthen the people's view that Greece is standing on its feet and moving forward," Samaras said.
With 30-percent unemployment and mounting public anger in Greece, it's far from certain that Samaras will be able to maintain the appearance of stability for the duration of the six-month presidency.
Some observers have pointed to the experience of the Czech Republic, which saw its 2009 presidency as a chance to raise its profile among older EU members.
Instead, Prague was seen as squandering its opportunity, with domestic political infighting that led to a government collapse halfway through its term.
RUSSIA -- G8
The United Kingdom was 2013's president of the world's Group of Eight major economies.
But it was still Russian President Vladimir Putin who stole the show, playing a role he appears to enjoy: that of spoiler.
Meeting at the G8's annual summit in June, Putin single-handedly derailed plans for a group statement calling for the ouster of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
Putin's surprise move drew a sharp statement from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who accused the Russian leader of defying the spirit of cooperation that is meant to characterize the G8.
"I don't think we should fool ourselves. This is the G7 plus one. We in the West have a very different perspective on this situation," Harper said. "Mr. Putin and his government are supporting the thugs of the Assad regime for their own reasons that I do not think are justifiable."
Justifiable or no, in 2014, Russia -- Harper's "plus one" -- advances from breaking the tone to making it. As of January 1, Moscow has assumed the yearlong presidency of the G8, which groups Russia with the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Canada, the United States, France, and Japan.
The G8 is generally seen as an instrument for consensus-building on pressing global issues, from the war in Syria to poverty or climate control. But the once-every-eight-years presidency also hands individual countries the chance to advance their own agenda.
Putin has already indicated that in his case, this is likely to mean international terrorism and the fight against drug trafficking -- both issues that allow him to defend his restrictive policies at home and in the post-Soviet neighborhood.
The G8 presidency will also allow Putin a second chance to show off Sochi, the site of the upcoming Winter Olympics. The Black Sea resort city, which has undergone a controversial, billion-dollar renovation at Putin's behest, will be the setting for the next G8 summit, in June 2014.
UKRAINE -- CIS
Many Ukrainians were hoping their country would meet 2014 with a newly signed Association Agreement and the promise of EU integration under their belt.
Instead, the new year comes with anger and protests, as hundreds of thousands of pro-Western Ukrainians continue to demonstrate against their government's last-minute decision to reject the EU in favor of closer ties with Russia.
It's in this dissonant atmosphere, then, that Ukraine takes on an ill-timed responsibility as chair of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a nine-country grouping that is seen as Moscow's attempt to keep the former Soviet republics within its grasp.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who announced his country's chairmanship in October -- a full month before his withdrawal from the EU deal -- has named trade and economic cooperation as "major priorities" of Ukraine's year as CIS head.
Such words, in a 2014 context, may be music to Russia's ears. The Kremlin has actively sought to lure Ukraine into the Moscow-led Eurasian Customs Union. The union, meant to serve as a rival to the EU's free-trade zone, currently groups Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan but is set to extend to Armenia and possibly Kyrgyzstan, as well as Ukraine. Putin is hoping a robust customs union could lay the groundwork for a full-blown EU counterpart, the Eurasian Union, as early as 2015.
By playing along, Yanukovych may be hoping to win Russian support for his reelection bid in Ukraine's 2015 presidential election. But he has stopped short of embracing Moscow outright.
During a December 19 news conference, he called on all outsiders to leave Ukraine alone -- without clarifying whether he was speaking about Moscow or Brussels.
"It is very important that other countries do not interfere in our internal affairs and that they do not consider that they are the masters here, anywhere, on Independence Square or anywhere else. I am categorically against anybody coming and teaching us how to live here," Yanukovych said.
As CIS chair, Ukraine will also oversee a number of security discussions that are a mainstay of the post-Soviet grouping.
At an October meeting in Belarus, Russian officials announced a five-year program to battle organized crime, extremism, trafficking, and terrorism within the CIS format. The body also invited Georgia, which left the CIS in 2009 amid sour ties with Moscow, to rejoin the group.
Unusually, Ukraine comes to the CIS chairmanship with only participating, not full, member status. Although Ukraine was one of the three countries behind the founding of the CIS in 1991, it has never ratified the CIS charter, which names Russia as the sole legal successor to the Soviet Union.
AZERBAIJAN -- COUNCIL OF EUROPE
One notable presidency begins later in the year -- on May 1, when Azerbaijan assumes the six-month leadership of the Council of Europe's decision-making body, the Committee of Ministers.
The committee, which is staffed by the foreign ministers from the council's 47 member states, meets just once a year, usually in Strasbourg.
But on a sub-ministerial level, the committee functions full-time, attempting to put the Council of Europe human rights conventions to practical use in public dialogue and the development of public international law.
Together with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the Committee of Ministers is considered the "guardian" of the council's stated values of human rights, democracy, and rule of law.
Up until recently, in fact, the committee was one of the few levers of pressure used against Azerbaijan, an oil-rich autocracy under almost perpetual criticism for human rights violations.
In 2010, the Committee of Ministers called on Baku to "explore all possible means" of freeing jailed journalist Eynulla Fatullayev after the Azerbaijani regime ignored a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights calling for his immediate release. (Fatullayev was pardoned and released six months later.)
The committee has also been asked to condemn Azerbaijan's frequent crackdowns on public demonstrations, which grew more intense in the months leading up to President Ilham Aliyev's controversial third-term reelection this year.
It's reasonable to expect that no such issues will be raised during Azerbaijan's six-month presidency. Baku, with its massive energy wealth and lobbying skills, has been seen as gaining a greater advantage over Council of Europe institutions in recent years.
In January 2013, PACE came under sharp criticism for failing to pass a report on Azerbaijan's political prisoners. Azerbaijani activists say that move has led to a sharp increase in politically motivated arrests.
Christoph Strasser, the German lawmaker who prepared the report, accused PACE of falling prey to "caviar diplomacy" by well-funded Azerbaijani lobbyists.
"We have some signals that deputies from some national parliaments are invited by the Azerbaijan government to spend holidays, to have lot of comfortable stays in Azerbaijan," Strasser said. "I think it's a very gray zone. I have no concrete proof to say it is corruption but I think that it is in a zone very close [to it]."
It remains to be seen what issues Azerbaijan -- which, according to local human rights groups, currently jails nearly 150 political prisoners, including many journalists -- will advance during its six-month chairmanship.
Azerbaijani officials say an action plan has been developed for Baku's time at the head of the Committee of Ministers. They have refused to divulge their intentions, however, saying only that they were in line with Council of Europe priorities.