The West Bank's Danica Patricks?

While stoppages and barricades stymie the "Freedom Flotillas" en route to Gaza, the "Speed Sisters" -- an eight-woman speed-racing troupe breaking onto the driving scene in the West Bank -- are revving up to shatter barriers at high speeds.

These unfearing females -- comprised of Christians and Muslims from ages 18 to 39 -- competed last Friday in the "Speed Test," a car race in the West Bank city of Ramallah that makes the typical NASCAR loop look like child's play. Thousands of fans attended the event to cheer on the seventy helmet-clad contestants as they navigated through treacherous obstacles, spinning loops, and serpentine pathways. And these eight women, gripping the wheels with fingerless gloves that accentuate their brightly painted fingernails, may have particularly piqued the crowd's interest: they are the first female team to enter the Speed Test. The Speed Sisters follow in the footsteps of the one female contestant -- now the group's coach -- who raced in the first competition five years ago.

While racing, many of the Speed Sisters wear t-shirts emblazoned with the British flag to pay homage to their sponsor, the British consulate in East Jerusalem. It is the consulate's personnel that facilitated the creation of the women's team, and its budget that subsidized about $8000 worth of training, coaches, and car refurbishing -- all part of a campaign to foster development in the West Bank and other communities of Palestinian refugees. But even with a financier, the women's road to the finish line is a bumpy one: they share a donated hatch-back that pales in comparison to the other high-powered BMWs and Mercedes on the track, and they face doubt and skepticism from their male counterparts.

Regardless, this strong female showing in a male-dominated arena is inspiring in such a conservative Muslim society -- especially one in which mounting political strife can often preclude a focus on social equity.



The return of Samizdat

This afternoon, former Russian Deputy Prime Minister turned opposition leader Vladimir Milov (second from left) stopped by FP's offices. Milov, along with blogger and activist Oleg Kozlovsky who also came by, will be speaking tomorrow morning at Radio Free Europe in Washington.

We touched on a number of subjects but I was particularly struck by what Milov sees as the limited usefulness of the Internet as a tool for building a democratic movement, particularly given the emphasis placed on it in U.S. foreign-policy circles. He gave an example from last year's mayoral election in Sochi, during which opposition candidate Boris Nemtsov was looking into launching an Internet-driven campaign: 

In Sochi, there are about 300,000 registered voters, and only about 30-40,000 of them are internet users. Out of that, less than 10,000 are interested in accessing political websites. Of those, the great majority – about 7 or 8,000 out of 10,000 ---are our supporters in the first place. The government has been very successful in limiting the impact of the internet by delaying the adoption of broadband. So internet is not a silver bullet, it’s only partially helpful. 

As a counterexample, Milov discussed how the oppostion used a much older method during a campaign against Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov last year: :

We have developed a new Samizdat approach -- brochures that we distribute freely on the streets. This is terribly effective. It raises interest People don’t throw them away, they read them. We published 200,000 copies of a Luzhkov brochure last fall when we had an anti-Luzhkov campaign in Moscow. There was a big shift in Luzhkov’s approval last fall and I think we evidently contributed to that. 

That's not to say that there's no role for the blogosphere in opposition movements, and Kozlovsky's blog in particular, is a must-read. But it's useful to consider that the same methods opposition movements used to topple dictators in Iran in 1979 and Moscow in 1990, may still be the most effective today. 

We also discussed President Medvedev's recent visit to Washington. While Milov feels its unfair to dismiss the "reset" entirely, he was not optimistic that any new reforms were likely under Medvedev: 

We are entering a new electoral cycle, which means that the period of opportunity with Medvedev is coming to an end. You don’t launch socially difficult reforms before an election.