Europe wrestles with defining itself

In 2004, the European Union added 10 countries, pushing its boundary eastward. In its bid to join the EU, Turkey pushed westward, renewing debate about how the Muslim country would affect European identity. Terrorist attacks in Madrid, Beslan, and Amsterdam raised new questions about the war on terror, while a strong euro threatened European economies. What stories might define 2005?

Russia's power grab

Expect popular President Vladimir Putin to intensify his transformation of Russia's fledgling system of post-Soviet democracy into a centrally controlled authoritarian regime. The Kremlin calls it "managed democracy": more legislation that is bringing order to Russian lives and uniformity to its political system.

Opposition parties are almost all defunct, and with broadcast media firmly under state influence, any challenger to Moscow's power has little voice. Russia may be one of the few countries left in the world that appears to be moving toward less freedom. The latest example: In mid-December, deputies voted that regional local governors would no longer be elected, but appointed.

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At the same time, Moscow is strengthening its sense of national self-importance - a move that put it on a collision course with Washington during December's disputed presidential elections in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union, aggressive US missile defense plans, and Russian support for Iran's nuclear program could further chill Russia's relations with the West in 2005.

What to watch:

• Bush and Putin claim they have a close personal relationship. Their February meeting in the Slovak Republic could provide a gauge of where their two countries' relationship is headed.

- Scott Peterson, Moscow

Immigration and Islam

From the March 11 Madrid bombings to the crackdown on terrorists in Britain, from the French head-scarf furor to the assassination of a Dutch filmmaker critical of Islam, 2004 has shown the depth of Europe's challenge in dealing with terrorists without alienating moderates, and in deciding which brands of Islam are dangerous and which are merely devout.

In 2005, the test will be to prevent terror attacks and root out Islamist radicals while reassuring the vast majority of moderate, law-abiding European Muslims.

Some academics say that unless Europe can tackle problems likely to cause militancy - poverty, alienation, and isolation of Islamic youth - the continent could become the new battleground between radical Islam and Western society.

What to watch:

• Britain's case against Egyptian-born cleric Abu Hamza for allegedly soliciting murder and racial hatred, which is set to resume in July, will require skillful handling to avoid drawing more young Muslims into the extremist camp.

• How Britain resolves its detention-without-trial policy for terror suspects.

• A Madrid summit on the March anniversary of its terror attacks aims to set guidelines for "the democratic response against terrorism."

- Mark Rice-Oxley, London

EU constitution and Turkey

Bringing Turkey's 69 million Muslims into the EU fold could mend fences with the Islamic world, demonstrating that Europe is no anti-Islamic club. Accession talks are set to start in October, even as some nations voice concerns about immigration, economic, and security issues.

Meanwhile, several countries, starting with Spain in February, are holding referendums on another EU project: the newly signed constitution. A "no" vote could jeopardize the pact aimed at revamping decisionmaking in the EU, which expanded to 25 countries from 15 last year.

"The ratification of the constitution will be the No. 1 issue this year," says Katinka Barysch, an EU expert at the Centre for European Reform, a think tank in London.

What to watch:

• France's referendum, expected in early summer, could seal the constitution's fate. A "non," though at this stage unlikely, could scuttle hopes for greater European integration. A "oui" would turn eyes to another precarious ballot: Britain in 2006.

- MRO

Blair's big year

A general election, expected to be set for May 5, will preoccupy Britons in 2005. Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Bush's closest international ally in the Iraq war, will keep his job, polls suggest, but voters upset by his support for US policies could reduce his Labour Party's majority.

"Labour will return with a reduced majority, but ... the prime minister will be able to press on with the sort of policies, particularly public-sector reform, that he has started," says Wyn Grant, professor of politics at England's Warwick University.

International matters will also occupy the prime minister. In 2005, Britain will chair the G-8 group of industrialized nations and the EU. Blair and his finance chief, Gordon Brown, have vowed to use that clout to help ease Africa's debt and HIV/AIDS predicament. Mr. Brown promises a "new Marshall plan" for the developing world, urging rich countries to boost aid spending to 0.7 percent of GDP and wipe out all debt owed by the poorest countries. "We're expecting it to be a big year," says Harriet Binet of Oxfam.

What to watch:

• Britain aims to turn momentum for tsunami relief to its antipoverty agenda. Brown is pushing a G-8 plan to freeze nearly $6 billion in debt owed by tsunami-affected nations. And Thursday, Brown will deliver his "Marshall plan." The effort will culminate at July's G-8 summit.

- MRO

On the slopes, a different kind of transatlantic rivalry

Keep an eye this winter on the Alpine slopes, where a maverick young American is well placed to break Europe's 20-year grip on world skiing.

Laid-back New Hampshire native Bode Miller is off to an explosive start in the World Cup championship, piling up six victories so far and becoming only the second man in history to win all four Alpine disciplines in the same season.

After several disappointing seasons, Mr. Miller seems to have gained the upper hand over the man who has ruled the slopes in recent years: Hermann "The Herminator" Maier.

Miller and Mr. Maier pit two different styles of skiing, and of life, against each other. Miller is cool, with a devil-may-care approach to racing. He makes impossibly late turns with astonishing nonchalance.

Maier is a machine, dedicated to victory, who often works himself up into an enraged lather of spittle as he waits in the gates. Maier trains by lifting weights and riding bicycles. Miller does log rolling and tightrope walking.

In previous seasons, Miller crashed out as often as he finished a race. This year, he seems to have disciplined his speed. With the Winter Olympics coming up in 2006, he could put skiing on the American sports map.

What to watch:

• Miller has a big lead in the standings. Can Maier catch up? Tune in to the World Cup Alpine Ski Championships March 9-13 in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.

- Peter Ford, Paris

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