Washington, April 11 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin's suggestion last week that three Duma members should be in prison rather than parliament inadvertently calls attention to a significant aspect of Russian political life.
That is its zero-sum quality, the fact that those in office enjoy privileges and protections from prosecution that they would lose if they lost office. While virtually all political systems provide some immunity to officeholders, the grant to Russian parliamentarians is far broader than in most.
Inherited from Soviet times when losing office typically meant losing almost everything, this aspect of Russian politics above all explains the willingness of those seeking to gain or retain office to do whatever it takes because the costs of being out of office are so high.
Just how high they can be was well illustrated this week as the Russian press reported on the as yet unsuccessful efforts of Moscow police to arrest former Duma member and onetime Yeltsin advisor Sergei Stankevich on charges of graft. Reportedly he could be sentenced to 15 years in prison now that he is a private citizen.
But the zero-sum quality of Russian politics also helps to explain three more fundamental aspects of Russian life.
First, it helps to explain an important source of corruption in Russian public life. To the extent that office provides a defense against criminal charges rather than an occasion for even more intense scrutiny of individual behaviour, both politicians and those who work for them are tempted to ignore the division between what is properly public and what is private.
That in turn increases both the likelihood of corruption by public officials at all levels and the public perception that officials are corrupt.
Second, it helps to explain the often brutal quality of political competition. As the Duma clearly understood when on Wednesday it demanded an apology from Yeltsin, the Russian president's remarks represented an implicit threat, a suggestion that he would like to use state power to punish his opponents.
Yeltsin's opponents, of course, have been equally frank with numerous politicians suggesting that Yeltsin himself should be tried and sentenced to jail or worse for his role in "destroying" the Soviet Union and "wrecking" Russian life.
Such comments increase the level of fear in society at large, contribute to the often apocalyptic quality of Russian political debate, and add to a rising cynicism on the part of the Russian people.
And third, the zero-sum quality of Russian political life may help to explain a certain conservatism on the part of Russian voters, a concern on their part that any further changes might be dangerous.
Curiously, this attitude may help explain Yeltsin's recent dramatic and, for many, unexpected rise in the polls.
Last week, Yuri Levada, a leading Russian pollster, provided support for this conclusion. He suggested that ever more Russians were supporting Yeltsin not because they trusted him or even believed that he could improve their lives. But rather they were backing him because they were now convinced that any further shift in the Russian political firmament could have even more negative consequences for their lives.
Some may welcome that consequence of the zero-sum aspect of Russian politics, but they are unlikely to be pleased with its other implications: corruption and brutality by those in office, the erosion of public confidence in the politics, and the corrosive effects such attitudes have on the development of a genuinely independent civil society.