Steve Chapman

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won a share of the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to restore calm after a civil war, and then won an election boycotted by the opposition but praised by outside monitors. Laurent Gbagbo, whose forces killed thousands after he refused to accept his electoral defeat in Ivory Coast last year, is in The Hague awaiting trial for crimes against humanity.

The protests in the Arab world prompted a harsh response -- in China, whose government, fearful of contagion, "cracked down on dissent to an extent we have not seen in over a decade," according to Human Rights Watch. Artist Ai Weiwei, who helped design the striking "Bird's Nest" stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was detained for three months for his political activism.

After the Burmese government released dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent most of the past two decades in confinement, it offered reforms that persuaded her to run for parliament in the coming elections. The changes also convinced Hillary Clinton to become the first U.S. secretary of state to visit the country since 1955.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who presided over an election widely denounced as fraudulent, suffered the additional embarrassment of seeing his party get less than half the rigged vote.

In the country's biggest demonstrations since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, angry citizens marched in numerous cities demanding a "Russia without Putin" and wearing white ribbons as emblems of protest. The prime minister, showing his trademark flair for empathy and humor, said he thought the ribbons were condoms.

In Nicaragua, incumbent President Daniel Ortega won another term despite a constitutional provision barring him from being re-elected. Leftist President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who once referred to George W. Bush as "the devil," was more charitable to reputed socialist Barack Obama, calling him "a clown" and "an embarrassment."

The real embarrassment is the survival of despots who try to keep their countries frozen in time. But as many of them learned in 2011, spring can arrive without notice.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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