By Rachel Sanderson in Milan

In his ninth end of year address to Italians and the last before he retires this year, Italy’s president Giorgio Napolitano pulled no punches.

His voice hoarse and visibly tired, in a televised speech on Wednesday night, Mr Napolitano attacked the prevalence of organised crime in Italy describing it as a “subsoil of rot” running through Italian social and political life. Read more

Most people have something they do to mark the end of the year: make a resolution, go to a party, tidy the attic. My annual ritual is to make a list of the five most significant events of the past year in global politics. This year is an odd one, in that it seems to me that there are only two events that stand head-and-shoulders above the others. The first is the breakdown in relations between Russia and the west, caused by the Ukraine crisis. The second is America’s return to war in the Middle East. So let’s deal with those two first and then move on to the other contenders.

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By Gideon Rachman
The euro crisis is back. An election in Greece next month and the probable victory of Syriza, a far-left party, will frighten politicians and investors. Once again they will be engaged in a grim discussion of a connected series of possible horrors: debt-default, bank runs, bailouts, social unrest and the possible ejection of Greece from the eurozone.

After watching their fortunes nosedive over the past year on the back of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and adventures in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s oligarchs caught a break on Friday night: a free meal on Vladimir Putin. Read more

Consequences of the US-Cuba rapprochement
Following president Barack Obama’s announcement that the United States will begin normalising relations with Cuba, John Paul Rathbone, Latin America editor, joins Gideon Rachman to examine how quickly the island state’s Soviet-style economy is likely to change and the implications for the wider region.

The move by US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, to announce the tentative resumption of diplomatic relations is already prompting talk that the world’s oldest trade embargo may be coming to an end.

Introduced in 1960, the US embargo of Cuba has hit the island economy of 11m people hard over the decades. In its annual report to the United Nations on the subject Cuba in September estimated it lost $3.9bn in foreign trade in 2013 alone because of the embargo. Havana’s running tally for the total economic damage: $116.8bn.

That figure is obviously worth taking with a pinch of salt, as should be any idea that the embargo is going to be lifted soon.

But there is no doubt that a change in US policy would represent a huge economic opportunity for Cuba or that the potential looks alluring to plenty of businesses in the US. Here are some points to keep in mind and some charts worth pondering: Read more

  • Large-scale intervention in the FX markets, limiting liquidity, further interest rate rises and capital controls are among the options that Russia’s central bank has to stem the rout in the rouble
  • Jeb Bush, the scion of a political dynasty who has declared his interest in running for president, faces a gulf between what the Republican base wants and what US floating voters will tolerate
  • Pope Francis was essential to breaking the deadlock between Cuba and the US that has lasted 50 years, initiating a discussion that led to the secret diplomacy behind the rapprochement
  • The brutal attacks in Peshawar have already backfired against the Pakistani Taliban (Foreign Policy)
  • Saudi cleric wants genders to mix and women to drive – but he is being attacked for it (Your Middle East)

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By Vincent Boland

It is the event that the Irish cannot put behind them. Six years ago, the country’s banks collapsed, and brought Ireland down with them. An official inquiry into what happened, and why, and who was responsible, got under way in Dublin on Wednesday. There is no guarantee that it will shed any new light on the affair. Read more

Russian President Vladimir Putin gives his annual press conference on Thursday as his government and the central bank struggle to contain the turmoil engulfing the nation’s economy. He is also expected to face scrutiny over Russian involvement in Ukraine. Last year’s event lasted more than four hours.

By Jack Farchy, Courtney Weaver, John Aglionby and Claer Barrett

 

When the Republicans took control of both houses of Congress last month, the conventional wisdom was that the final two years of Barack Obama’s time in the White House would be a sad affair. The president would be a “lame duck” – with no majority in Congress and waning authority, even over his own party. Some even suggested that Mr Obama was losing interest in his job.

Just a few weeks later, however, it seems that far from being crippled by the midterm elections, Mr Obama has been liberated. With no further elections to fight, he seems to have decided to use his last two years in office to advance some causes that he really believes in. By finding areas where he has executive authority to act without needing Congressional approval, the president has shown that he can get a lot done. His decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba is the latest dramatic example. Read more

US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy signs the order of naval blockade of Cuba, on October 24, 1962 in White House. Getty.

It was on February 7 1962 that John F Kennedy signed the US policy now known as the Cuban embargo into law. The day before, the US president had ordered an aide to buy him 1,000 Petit Upmanns cigars. It was only after Kennedy got word that his request had been carried out that he authorised the new regulations that banned Cuban imports and would have made the purchase illegal.

Today, 52 years later, Barack Obama has partially reversed that law. The changes he has made do not amount to a full repeal of the embargo – that requires an act of Congress. Nonetheless, the changes are profound. They recognise that US policy towards the island has failed to achieve its objective of change – Mr Obama is, after all, the 11th US president to face a socialist Cuba. They recognise that the embargo has often poisoned US diplomacy in the broader region. And the changes recognise that, for over half a century, the US embargo has been emblematic of Washington’s bully-boy approach to the socialist island, which has won Cuba international sympathy that the dictatorship of the Castro brothers would otherwise not have enjoyed. Read more

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In our Reporting Back series, we ask FT foreign correspondents to tell us about a recent trip. Katrina Manson, the FT’s east Africa correspondent, tells us about her visit to Juba, the capital of South Sudan.

Why now?

A year after civil war ignited in South Sudan, peace talks are continuing, with little prospect of a lasting deal. I went to Juba to mark the December anniversary of the start of the war and to find how the capital of the world’s newest country is coping, and also to see the work of the International Rescue Committee, the FT’s partner for this year’s seasonal appeal.

What impression did you take away about the situation on the ground?

Billboards across Juba honour those who gave their lives for South Sudan’s freedom – the country seceded from the Khartoum regime to the north in 2011 after decades of fighting. “Your freedom is the price of our blood,” says one. Others evoke unity: “We are many tribes, but one nation; We need each other to build a strong and united country.”

But they look like sorry prophecies. The civil war sparked by a political and military fallout last December quickly set ethnic groups against one another in five of the country’s 10 states. Residents of the ethnically mixed capital now live in an atmosphere of mistrust. Read more

Almost exactly 15 years ago, on December 29, 1999, Vladimir Putin – then Russia’s prime minister and on the verge of promotion to the presidency – published a 5,000-word “mission statement” that summed up what he saw as the enduring values of the Russian people.

With the rouble dropping like a sack of Volga valley potatoes and the increasing threat to the Putin era’s social contract – “I make you wealthier and let you travel abroad, but I stay in power indefinitely and you don’t demand political freedom” – it is worth taking another look at the so-called Millennium Message. Read more

By Gideon Rachman
Every time Israel holds an election, it makes a point to the world and to itself. The country has suffered widespread condemnation for its military actions in Gaza. But it remains a lonely democracy in the Middle East.

When an election was called in Israel earlier this week, most people assumed that the likeliest outcome was that a government led by Benjamin Netanyahu would be replaced by another government led by Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet early developments in the election campaign – supplemented by early opinion polls – suggest that Mr Netanyahu may not be such a shoo-in, after all. Read more

Japan’s snap elections
Shinzo Abe’s decision to call snap elections only two years into his term perplexed many people. Was it simply cover for a U-turn on a planned rise in consumption tax or was the prime minister seeking a renewed mandate for more radical measures to kick-start growth? Ben Hall discusses what the elections mean for the future of the world’s third-largest economy with Ben McLannahan and David Pilling.

  • Bahrain’s royal family has built up vast private wealth, including a $900m portfolio of UK real estate, after embarking on development projects on disputed reclaimed land in the Gulf kingdom, an FT investigation reveals
  • The prospect of Greece’s self-styled “radical left” Syriza party coming to power has sown panic among investors, but its leader has softened his rhetoric and is changing tactics to reassure the business community
  • Beneath the surface of gridlock and hyper-partisanship in US political life is a national security establishment whose influence endures administrations and constantly seems to evade constraints
  • Narendra Modi has not made many sweeping reforms since he stormed to India’s premiership in May. But he has made some reforms about sweeping – showing his feel for the issues that affect the masses outside the Delhi beltway
  • The extent of the UK’s military and political catastrophe in Afghanistan is hard to overstate. It was doomed to fail before it began, and fail it did, at a terrible cost in lives and money, writes James Meek in the London Review of Books

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  • The Senate intelligence committee on Tuesday released its long-awaited report into the CIA’s use of torture in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Here are five key findings
  • Retail businesses in Russia that built empires selling imported goods and foreign holidays to affluent Russians are now struggling to adjust amid a 40% drop in the rouble and a looming recession
  • The safety of Indian women is in the spotlight once again after a driver of the ride-hailing app Uber raped a 25-year-old in New Delhi, leading to calls for the service to be banned
  • The striking thing about Japan’s election is that nobody is able to articulate a different course to Abenomics, despite Mr Abe’s falling popularity and public opposition to his economic plan
  • Drunken and boorish behavior, cellphones, crying children and reclining seats have all led to episodes of flight rage. But a bag of macadamia nuts? (New York Times)

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The Senate Intelligence Committee is releasing a long-awaited report on the CIA’s use of interrogation tactics, including torture, in the wake of the 09/11 attacks in the US.

The Committee, chaired by California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, is publishing an executive summary of the nearly 6,000 page report, which will provide new, and damaging, details about the use of so-called “enhanced” interrogation techniques in the fight against terrorism.

Although President Barack Obama’s administration has vowed to be transparent about the report’s conclusions. the timing of its release has proven controversial, with US military around the world braced for violent backlash and Republican critics claiming it will damage American interests.

We’ll be posting key excerpts from the report and reaction as we go through it.