Steve Chapman

A rare positive development came in Burma, whose government has undertaken major political reforms. After spending most of the past two decades under house arrest, dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi led her party to victory in parliamentary elections.

"It's becoming difficult to find things to complain about," remarked an official of a dissident exile group. Barack Obama marked the improvement by becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit the country.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has been in power since 1999, won re-election despite runaway inflation and rampant crime. Apparently unable to defeat the cancer for which he has undergone multiple operations, El Comandante designated a preferred successor in case he is not available to serve.

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who abetted terrorism, murder and rape in Sierra Leone's civil war, became the first head of state convicted of crimes against humanity by an international court since the Nuremberg trials.

In Senegal, Africa's oldest democracy, President Abdoulaye Wade ran for a third term despite a two-term limit but lost. Mali suffered two military coups. On Thursday, the UN Security Council voted to send African troops to root out al-Qaida forces that have taken over the northern part of the country, but set no timetable.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was inaugurated in May after police beat protesters with nightsticks and arrested hundreds. His spokesman later expressed regret about the police conduct: "I would have liked them to act more harshly."

The government passed a law to punish unauthorized demonstrations with fines as high as $9,000 per person. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told me that Putin is mounting "the biggest crackdown in Russia since the Soviet era."

In that respect, Putin is acting in the spirit of the times. Climate experts say 2012 will likely be the warmest year ever in the United States. In the global political realm, though, it's been a Big Chill.

Steve Chapman

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

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