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Top 10 Stories to Watch in 2012

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2011 was a busy news year, with headlines packed with globe-altering events. What are the big stories to keep an eye on headed into 2012?

Russia Protests and Election

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In September 2011, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who served two terms from 2000-2008, said he would seek to return to the presidency -- with caretaker President Dmitry Medvedev's blessing -- in 2012. Expected to sail to an easy win (and possible 12 more year in power), Putin's Kremlin drive has stoked fresh fears of a more dramatic authoritarian slide in the former Soviet Union. But on the heels of the Arab Spring, a Russian Winter is in the works: Tens of thousands of Russians poured into the streets in the last weeks of the year to protest alleged irregularities and fraud in the Dec. 4 Duma election -- and the Putin regime in general. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev even called on Putin to "leave now" as "we don’t need any tsars." Putin has dismissed both calls to resign and for a repeat of the legislative elections. But with a pledge by opponents to mobilize a million-strong demonstration, how will protests grow -- and what kind of reaction will this provoke from the Kremlin?

An Overthrow in Syria?

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Inspired by other Arab Spring movements, protests began against the brutal rule of Bashar al-Assad on Jan. 26. 2011. The ongoing protests escalated to an uprising in March 2011, with thousands taking to the streets in numerous cities to demand the ouster of Assad. As the protests closed in on 2012, the United Nations reported more than 5,000 dead, due to government forces opening fire on protesters, snipers, torture and more. The Arab League lost patience with Assad and, at the end of the year, sent in monitors to attempt to determine the extent of the horrors in Syria. Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition dug in, turned out in huge numbers to protest, and set in place a post-Assad plan. Some of those being killed are defectors from the army, but 2012 will tell whether Assad can keep the bulk of military in his corner enough to stay in power. And if the Alawite leaves, what can democracy-loving Syrians do to keep Islamists at bay?

The Struggling Euro

(Photo by Julien M. Hekimian/Getty Images)
Greece is on the brink of meltdown due to spiraling debt, and the deficit crisis is continentally contagious. Last year, the International Monetary Fund bailed out Greece to the tune of 110 billion euros, contingent on the implementation of strict austerity measures. On the heels of this dramatic action came bailout packages for Ireland and Portugal. And the Greek tragedy is far from over as the debate over whether to accept debt-forgiveness conditions upended the government in Athens. Furthermore, other debt-laden European nations risk going under. This year's euro crisis saw the downfall of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government, and continued huddles by other European leaders over how - and whether - the euro can be saved.

Iran

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
The arm-wrestling has been going on for years: Iran claims its growing nuclear program is only for peaceful energy purposes, many other countries charge that Iran is on course to develop a nuclear weapon, the International Atomic Energy Agency reports that Iran is being too shady to tell for sure. The next stage could be strikes by Israel, the target of threats by Tehran, against Iran's nuclear facilities. But Tehran ended 2011 with a fresh threat that could throw punitive economic measures back in the face of the West. Iran claimed twice that it could shut down the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, which would spike oil prices. The U.S. vowed to not let that happen. Nuclear development aside, it could be the battle over fossil fuels that brings Iran's collision course with the West to a head.

North Korea Transition

(Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
At the end of 2011, Pyongyang announced that dictator Kim Jong-il had died of a heart attack while traveling on a train Dec. 17. His twentysomething heir, Kim Jong-un, inherits a country that is poor and starving, while enjoying the benefits of his family's wealth. This unpredictable successor also inherits a nuclear standoff with the west, and on the day his father's death was announced North Korea reportedly test-fired a short-range missile. The party has publicly showed support for "Great Successor" Kim Jong-un, but how secure his reign is at the end of the year will be something to watch. The year should also give hints to what kind of dictator the young Kim will be -- and how he might escalate tensions with South Korea, Japan and the United States.

Afghanistan Security

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In 2011, the Iraq war officially came to an end with the withdrawal of the last U.S. forces. This was followed by a series of bombings across the country, for which al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility. The fragile sense of security overshadows the next conflict scheduled to come to an end soon. With the NATO coalition set to transfer all security responsibilities to Afghan forces by 2014, myriad challenges are highlighted. Will security forces be brought up to snuff by then? Will the effort to establish relations with the Taliban result in a fresh offensive when the group believes its frenemies have been lured into a sense of security?

U.S. Presidential Election

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President Barack Obama has seemed to be on shaky ground going into his re-election effort with low approval ratings and a U.S. economy struggling to get back on its feet. But an equally shaky Republican primary season has suggested that it may not be so easy to unseat Obama. At stake will be a host of critical issues in the next four years, including the threat of a double-dip recession and the threat of conflict with Iran, and the possibilty of a change in course with a changing of the guard. It's going to be a long 10 months of campaigning in 2012, but the world is going to be watching.

Al-Qaeda Moves Forward

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Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri stepped into the top leadership slot at al-Qaeda after the May killing of Osama bin Laden. For years now, al-Zawahiri, who has a $25 million bounty on his head by the United States, has been the public face of al-Qaeda, releasing video after video while Osama bin Laden stayed tucked away in his Abbottabad compound. Al-Zawahiri's ascension to the head of al-Qaeda wasn't without controversy. There has been buzz that he's not "universally accepted" among al-Qaeda's rank-and-file by not carrying the same cult of personality, and the fact that he wasn't promoted to the No. 1 spot until six weeks after bin Laden's death led to speculation that there was hesitation within the terrorist group. At the beginning of his tenure, al-Zawahiri has stepped up propaganda and retooled the tone and pace of the group's messaging. Analysts suggest that these early signs show that al-Zawahiri is putting muscle behind the effort for al-Qaeda not to just survive, but to be more dangerous than ever.

A New Venezuela?

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Hugo Chavez has led Venezuela since 1999, vowing to fully implement his Bolivarian Revolution goal of a socialist society. In recent years, he has increasingly cracked down on his political opponents, the media, clergy and others voicing dissent as he has increased the nationalization of industries. But in summer 2011, Chavez said he was undergoing treatment for a pelvic tumor, sparking speculation about the severity and prognosis of his cancer. Chavez, who accused the U.S. of causing his cancer, has vowed to run for election again in October 2012. A prominent doctor who said that Chavez is keeping the gravity of his illness a secret was forced to flee the country after being pursued by state intelligence officials. If the secrecy from Caracas is linked to a severe cancer, as Chavez denies, it raises questions about how the opposition would be prepared to handle a post-Chavez Venezuela.

Hacktivists

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If 2010 was the year of WikiLeaks, 2012 should be the year of Anonymous. The hacktivist group is showing itself to be adept at terrorizing big business and big governments in ways that Occupy Wall Street protesters can't. The international underground group leaped onto the world stage with a number of denial of service attacks in 2008, and in 2010 backed up its compatriots in hacktivism by staging similar attacks against companies opposing WikiLeaks (Operation Avenge Assange). In fall 2011, some Anonymous members threatened to kill Facebook. On Christmas Eve, the group hacked into intelligence company Stratfor's client information, stole credit card numbers and gave $1 million in corporate customers' funds to charity. In retaliation for the ongoing prosecution of Bradley Manning, accused of leaking confidential U.S. government data to WikiLeaks, Anonymous released more Stratfor client data and vowed to attack "multiple law enforcement targets from coast to coast."
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