Wars raged in the Middle East and beyond. Economic woes stretched across continents. Crashing oil prices boosted some countries and slammed others. World leaders had a lot on their plate this past year. They were responsible for some of their trouble, and some of it just happened to them.
Whether they earned their good fortune or got hammered by bad luck, here’s a look at the leaders who fared the best and the worst in 2014, plus a peek at what they can expect next year:
Vladimir Putin’s Bipolar Year
It’s possible the Russian president had both the best and the worst moments of any leader this year.
No one got off to a better start, at least among his own people. The Winter Olympics in Sochi were a rousing success in February. Shortly afterward, Putin sent the Russian military off to seize Crimea in Ukraine. His popularity at home soared.
But perhaps no leader finished the year in sharper decline. Falling oil prices are squeezing Russia’s economy as are Western sanctions. The ruble has crashed and Russia’s central bank says the economy could shrink by 4.5 percent in the coming year.
For now, Putin can console himself with a popularity rating still north of 80 percent. But next year looks rough.
As NPR’s Moscow correspondent Corey Flintoff noted, “However Putin’s next year may begin, it’s hard to imagine that it will involve any immediate reduction in the tensions that flared so high in 2014.”
Putin acknowledged the hard road ahead when he told his ministers not to take the traditional two-week vacation at the start of the new year.
“For the government, for your agencies, we cannot afford this long holiday, at least this year — you know what I mean,” said Putin.
Bashar Assad’s Unexpected Break
As Syria’s civil war metastasized and the Islamic State rapidly expanded its reach, it hardly seemed possible that things could get worse for embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad.
But as ISIS grew more powerful in both Syria and Iraq, the U.S. intervened with airstrikes against the radical Islamist group. This halted the ISIS advance and allowed Assad him to focus his forces on more moderate rebels.
U.S. officials insist the air campaign does not mean they are supporting Assad. But many analysts say it’s having that effect even if it’s unintended. Joshua Landis, a Syria analyst and professor at the University of Oklahoma, argues that Assad now “has the United States as a strategic ally” and that he ends the year looking strong.
Also, Assad overwhelmingly won a presidential election in June, which the West denounced it as illegitimate. Still, Assad has retained core support in his Alawite community and remains entrenched in Damascus even if many parts of the country are in flames and beyond his reach.
The Odd Pronouncements Of Turkey’s Leader
After a dozen years as prime minister, Recep Tayyp Erdogan was elected president and recently moved into a monumental 1,100-room palace. Not bad.
But his year was also marked by strange statements, aggressive moves against opponents and periodic friction with the United States. Here’s a sampling:
— He described birth control as “treason.”
— He told Latin American Muslim leaders that Muslims discovered America in 1178, more than three centuries before Columbus arrived.
— He angered many women when, speaking at a women’s conference, he said, “You cannot bring man and woman down to equal levels, it’s against the creation. Their nature and bodies are clearly different.”
As NPR’s Istanbul correspondent Peter Kenyon reported, “These and other remarks began to raise troubling questions: Is Turkey still a reliable NATO ally? Is a model majority Muslim democracy becoming just another repressive state in a region that has too many of those already?”
Venezuela Gets Blindsided
The South American nation and its President Nicolas Maduro have a well-defined profile: heavily dependent on oil exports, a close friend of Cuba and vehemently anti-American.
That was a bad combination in 2014. Oil prices are now roughly half of what they were this summer, a crippling blow to a country where the economy was already suffering widespread shortages of basic goods and inflation of more than 50 percent.
If oil prices are fickle, at least Venezuela could depend on Cuba as a steadfast ally in anti-Yankee vitriol. Then came the Dec. 17 announcement by Presidents Obama and Raul Castro that the U.S. and Cuba planned to normalize relations.
Maduro, who became president last year after Hugo Chavez died of cancer, is looking increasingly broke and isolated heading into 2015.
Did Anyone Have A Good Year?
There’s no clear winner here. China’s President Xi Jinping has consolidated power and looks like he may become China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. But China’s economy has cooled and Xi himself has acknowledged that his sweeping anti-corruption campaign is facing resistance and is at a stalemate.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is widely viewed as Europe’s most important national leader as she presides over the country with the strongest economy on an otherwise sluggish continent. In a glowing profile of her in The New Yorker, writer George Packer described her as “the world’s most powerful woman.”
Pope Francis, in his first full year as the pontiff, may have had a better year than any other global leader. His austerity and humility have broad global appeal. Church scandals that predated his papacy have faded. And he has become increasingly outspoken and active on global politics — including a key role in brokering the U.S.-Cuba thaw.
“In the 21 months since his election, the first pope to take the name of Saint Francis has emerged as a moral leader on the global stage, addressing both Catholics and the world beyond,” NPR’s Rome correspondent Sylvia Poggioli reported. “Francis is a master at blending the spiritual with the political.”
Greg Myre is the international editor for NPR.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregmyre1.