OSLO (Reuters) - Russian dissidents and religious leaders working for Muslim-Christian reconciliation are among the favorites to win the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize when the result is announced on Friday.
The year has brought few notable peace breakthroughs, leaving an unusually large selection of names in circulation and perhaps increasing the chance of a surprise winner.
"I'm pretty sure the committee would like to honor the monumental events in the Middle East," said Jan Egeland, the Director of Human Rights Watch Europe.
"But as the Arab Spring turns to 'autumn', this is becoming very difficult, so an approach may be to look at those who work for dialogue among religions," said Egeland, a former United Nations under-secretary-general.
The betting agency Unibet favors Maggie Gobran, a Coptic Christian nun who runs a children's mission in Cairo, giving her a 13 percent chance of winning.
Others mentioned include Pakistani philanthropist and welfare worker Abdul Sattar Edhi and Nigerian religious leaders John Onaiyekan and Mohamed Sa'ad Abubakar, who have helped to calm their country's Christian-Muslim violence this year.
A direct recognition of the Arab Spring is unlikely, however, as the committee gave part of its 2011 award to the journalist Tawakkol Karman to recognize her work in Yemen's transformation, and it rarely visits an issue two years running.
The committee could recognize the struggle to prevent an erosion of human rights in Russia. Such a choice would probably touch off a diplomatic row, especially as committee chair Thorbjoern Jagland is also the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, which promotes human rights, democracy and the rule of law in its 47 member countries, including Russia.
"Jagland is always criticized on the grounds that there's a conflict of interest here and that he wouldn't dare to anger the Russians," said Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo. "So perhaps he's inclined to prove his critics wrong."
Although the Norwegian Nobel Committee is independent of the government, its members are picked by parliament and Jagland is a former prime minister, so foreign governments often see it as an affiliate of the Norwegian state.
China froze diplomatic ties with Norway in 2010 when Jagland's committee gave the prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo, accusing Norway of interfering in its internal affairs.
"Russian names are always on the list but if they wanted to give democracy-oriented movements in Russia a push, this would be the year for that," Egeland said.
Criticism of Russia's human rights record grew louder this year as the government cracked down on free speech ahead of presidential elections, and members of the punk band Pussy Riot were jailed for a protest in Moscow's main cathedral against Vladimir Putin, Russia's dominant leader for almost 13 years.
The list of potential Russian laureates includes Svetlana Gannushkina and the civil rights society Memorial that she helps to lead, and the radio station Ekho Moskvy and its editor Alexei Venediktov.
NOT PUSSY RIOT
Pussy Riot itself is unlikely even to be considered as nominations for the prize closed on February 1, before the band gained international attention.
The committee received 231 nominations this year, including 43 organizations. It usually narrows the list to between 25 and 35 names at its first meeting, said Geir Lundestad, the committee's executive secretary.
By April, the list is narrowed again, usually to between five and seven names. A decision is made about two weeks before the announcement.
The winner will receive 8 million Swedish crowns ($1.21 million), 2 million less than last year, as the economic downturn has taken a toll on Alfred Nobel's estate.
Other names in vogue include Gene Sharp, a retired American professor of political science known for his work on non-violent struggle, and the Afghan doctor and politician Sima Samar, an advocate of women's rights in the Muslim world.
The Irish bookmaker Paddy Power has Sharp as its favorite, followed by Samar.
The year's most notable advance towards peace has been Myanmar's gradual democratization but the committee has already honored opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and the government is unlikely to be recognized merely for being less totalitarian, experts said.
"If they wanted to do something really different, they would look at South Sudan and a fairly exemplary peace process there," said Iver Neumann, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.
"But the Nobel Peace Prize Committee is never adventurous, I think they'll find somebody like themselves, a mainstream politician who clinched some type of deal." ($1 = 6.5846 Swedish crowns)
(Additional reporting by Alister Doyle; Editing by Kevin Liffey)