2011 was an undeniably incredible year. Protests in North Africa and the Middle East have overthrown dictators, ended decades-long regimes and illuminated the rampant repression still present in many countries. The United States saw its own protests, linked to the global financial crisis which was epitomized by the Euro zone debt crisis that caused substantial economic and social turmoil.
2012 hasn't yet begun, but the people on this list are already poised to become the most important geo-political figures of the coming year.
Notably, there are omissions. Whichever Republican candidate faces off against Barack Obama next year will be immensely important in the United States, but right now, with the ever-rotating carnival of faces at the top of the polls, the nominee is far from certain.
Below are the five people who could have a significant impact in 2012.
Up until a few months ago, Putin's victory in the forthcoming 2012 Russian presidential election was essentially guaranteed. In a country where few political surprises are allowed, Putin was supposed to begin his third term as president while current president Dmitri Medvedev took a step back and filled Putin's prime minister seat. The Kremlin was supposed to continue as usual.
However, that narrative is being challenged for the first time since Putin took office over ten years ago. The first real sign of change occurred after a parliamentary election earlier this month. Putin's party, United Russia, lost an unexpectedly high number of seats, thereby losing the super-majority that allowed it to essentially pass any legislation it pleased.
More importantly, even though the vote wasn't entirely in United Russia's favor, there were widespread allegations of voter fraud made about the party. After videos of party members stuffing ballot boxes and other illegal activities went online, thousands of Russians took to the streets in what became the largest protests in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Both young and old activists gathered in Moscow and demanded that Putin step down. Meanwhile, some of Putin's former allies -- such as billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov and former finance minister Alexei Kudrin -- have broken ranks and are considering a run against Putin in 2012. Putin has been the driving force behind Russia politics for a decade and a new president from outside United Russia would be a significant, world-changing event.
Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi
A significant part of Egypt's political future lies in Tantawi's hands. As the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces -- Egypt's interim government -- Tantawi is currently running the country and it could be his decision regarding whether or not the military will make way for civilian rule.
Egypt has just finished its first round of parliamentary elections, a process that ended with a military crackdown against protestors in Tahrir Square. The future role of the governing body, as well as of a new president (to be elected in June), will depend on how much power the military is willing to give up. Tantawi has promised to step down once a government is in place, but if the new cabinet tries to limit the military's power or funding, it could have a disastrous outcome.
With the death of Kim Jong-il last Saturday, the inexperienced and unknown Kim Jong-un takes control of North Korea, a county that is believed to have nuclear weapons.
“[Kim Jong-un] has had little preparation in cultivating his own followers. He has no new ideology to associate with in his rise to power. I could not think of less ideal conditions — in a North Korean context — under which he could be given the reins of power,” Victor Cha, a Korea expert at the nonprofit Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former White House official, told the Los Angeles Times on the Monday follow Kim Jong-il's death.
South Korea and the United States, among others, have already expressed their concerns that the transition of power is going to create an instability that will lead to military tension. Troop movements, missile strikes and so on are all being watched for from the United State's bases in South Korea.
The issue here, CNN's Christiane Amanpour has said, is whether [North Korea] will promote more hardline policies from some of the old guard. Whether they will circle the wagons around this young man and whether it will put a stop to the negotiations with the United States or whether they will go through nonetheless.
While North Korea's state structure is probably strong enough to withstand the transition unharmed, there has to be talk that Kim Jong-un's youth and inexperience could be seen as a weakness, either by a repressed population or by dissenters within the cabinet. For North Korea, 2012 could either be just a normal year of food shortages and missile tests, or it could be one of the most interesting years in decades.
People are dying every day in Syria, where President Assad continues with his militarized crackdown against anti-government protests. The unrest that stemmed from the Arab Spring could conceivably run into spring 2012 -- the so-called uprising is already in its tenth month, and despite Assad's many promises, grand statements and signed Arab League agreements, the Syrian president has shown no sign that he will end his bloody campaign, nor concede to any of the protestors demands.
At least 4,000 people have been killed since protests began in March, most of them non-violent protestors. However, Assad has continually claimed that the uprising is not as it appears, blaming violence on the demonstrators as well as outside agitators and armed gangs, rather than government forces.
No government in the world kills its people, unless it is led by a crazy person, Assad told ABC News' Barbara Walters.
Every 'brute reaction' was by an individual, not by an institution, that's what you have to know, Assad said. There is a difference between having a policy to crackdown and between having some mistakes committed by some officials. There is a big difference.
There was no command to kill or to be brutal, he added. Most of the people that have been killed are supporters of the government, not the vice versa.
The world will continue to watch Syria as 2012 develops. Currently, any outcome to the situation is possible. With more and more soldiers defecting to the opposition, Syria could be sinking into a Libyan-like state of civil war. Or, it could go down as another example of a dictator repressing his people.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan
If something drastic does happen in Syria, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan might have something to do with it. In the past year, the statesman has stood strong against his former ally in hopes of ending the bloodshed. Turkey has welcomed refugees feeling Syria and Erdogan has personally tried to talk Assad down and to promote a dialogue between the government and the opposition (although with no luck, so far).
These days, [Turkey's] prime minister may be the most popular figure in the Middle East, its foreign minister envisions a new order there and its officials have managed to do what the Obama administration has so far failed to: position themselves firmly on the side of change in the Arab revolts and revolutions, The New York Times' Anthony Shadid said in September.
Additionally, with Iran now slowly leading itself into a new Cold War, Turkey could be a necessary buffer that keeps tensions from escalating out of control.
But, Erdogan's ambitions are more economic and the Turkish prime minister has also fostered a number of notable relationships in the past few years, which will only become more fruitful in 2012 and beyond. Turkey is heavily invested in Iraq, making diplomatic headway in Egypt, and keeping Israel within distance.
More than most leaders in the world, he has pledged significant aid to drought- and famine-stricken Somalia, which has the double effect of being a noble humanitarian act and a nice, if risky, investment in a new government (in 2012) and the potentially huge untapped oil reserves of the Puntland region.