On the Nature of Political Antagonism in Belarusian Society

Chronicle from Belarus
Tatiana Shchyttsova

Thus Tikhanovskaya acted as an adherent of a democratic constitutional system, and Lukashenko -- as a sovereign-dictator in the Schmittian sense. It is noteworthy that such antagonism was to some extent implied (as a possibility) in the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus itself since, on the one hand, it establishes representative democracy, on the other hand, it endows the president with exceptional power (including the right to decide whether the constitution can be suspended). Actually, this means juxtaposition of two sovereigns in the politico-juridical field: the sovereign-people and the sovereign-ruler who is authorized to represent these people. It follows that an antagonistic relationship between two sovereigns may arise if the latter ceases to represent the interests of the former or, in another formulation. However, this dangerous implication is neutralized in the Constitution by such an important political instrument as presidential elections. As a democratic procedure presidential elections are intended to ensure that power is delegated to a person who truly represents the voters, and thus to prevent the emergence of antagonistic relations destructive to society. Therefore the pre-election campaign became a political framework for the rapidly maturing antagonism, for public manifestations of people’s rejection of the regime of sovereign rule (personalistic authoritarianism). Blatant falsification of the election results and brutal violence against those who came out to protest against it have led to the unprecedented aggravation of antagonism causing thereby the deepest political crisis in the history of Belarus.

In this short essay, I will touch upon the question of the very positioning of the antagonism in our society. It is a question of how the antagonism – its place and function in today’s Belarusian society – can be conceived of? In modern political theory, there are two approaches in which the formation of antagonism is considered a defining element of political life. The first one was developed by Carl Schmitt, the second one -- by Chantal Mouffe. For Schmitt (1976), antagonism underlies the collective political identification carried out in accordance with the opposition between We and They so that every element belonging to “We” is seen as a friend, and every element belonging to “They” is seen as an enemy. Belongingness to “We” as the basis of political identity presupposes the national unity necessary for successfully confronting “They” as a collective enemy (e.g. an enemy state). In this regard, Schmitt supports a form of democracy for which pluralism is a counterproductive -- dangerous, eroding popular unity -- strategy since the political self-assertion of We in the face of an external enemy requires not civil discussions but correct and timely decisions in the interests of strengthening unity this "We" given that making such decisions is delegated to the state (as an institution of power). The German thinker understood the We/They antagonism pretty radically as the opposition of two political totalities which essentially implies their readiness for war (in the classical sense).

Mouffe (2006) agrees with Schmitt as for the following two fundamental theoretical positions: first, the distinction between Us and Them is a precondition for the definition and existence of identity; second, the antagonistic relations reveal the limits of the rationalistic concept of the political aimed at achieving a rational consensus between the conflicting parties. The key difference of her theory from the Schmittian one is the recognition of a fundamental role of pluralism in a democratic society. For Mouffe, the We-They distinction is a structural principle that forms a plural democratic sociality. It leads her to the question of the possibility of overcoming or, even better, preventing the emergence of antagonistic relations between different ‘we-they’ in a pluralistic democracy. She sees a solution – and at the same time the ultimate task of modern democratic politics -- in transforming antagonism into agonism that is into such a confrontation between Us and They in which ‘They’ are perceived not as enemies but as adversaries.

I argue that although the current political antagonism in Belarus can be partially interpreted both through the Schmittian and through the Mouffian lens,

it is not fully conceivable from these theoretical perspectives. Roughly speaking, we need to identify some third version located "between" those two conceptions in order to be able to outline conditions for overcoming the antagonistic relation in question.

Lukashenko, in his opening speech at the  All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, distinctly articulated Schmittian categorical opposition We-They clearly interpreting these “they” as enemies of the state and characteristically uniting under this category external enemies (“puppeteers”) and internal enemies ( "puppets"). Correspondingly, Lukashenko’s call for national unity reflected in the Assembly’s slogan Unity. Development. Independence. meant the need for political consolidation and strengthening people’s unity in the face of both external and internal threats to the state. By constructing the collective image of the "enemies of the people" Lukashenko intended to legitimate both his mission of being a guarantor of state’s security and state’s persecution of citizens engaged in the protest movement. Thus Schmittian conceptual opposition builds a phantasmatic framework of the official political rhetoric so that mass repressions appear not only justified but also necessary within the frame of this phantasm. Its irrelevance to reality is striking since neither Lukashenko's pathetic “We” relates to real national unity (see last surveys of Chatham House in this regard) nor the democratic activists ever planned to violently seize power from the acting head of state.

Against the background of Shmittian political-militaristic logic,  Lukashenko’s obsession with violent (incl. military) scenarios might look like an interesting case of manipulative instrumentalization of such logic if the obsession were only a rhetorical one (e.g. according to Lukashenko "They" tried to forcibly seize power from him but could not defeat him).  However, he holds to Schmittian logic not just to get the audience affectively consolidated around him as the only state security guarantor. What is much worse, he behaves and rules in line with this logic. By imposing it on the Belarusian political crisis he, as it seems, seeks justification of all extraordinary use of violence against the protesters symptomatically named by him “rebels”.

Let us address now Mouffe's theory of agonistic democracy. Whereas Belgian philosopher thinks predominantly in terms of preventing the emergence of antagonistic conflicts Belarusian society has to tackle the problem of how to solve the already existing antagonism. Her approach is not relevant to the current Belarusian situation in that regard that while she focuses on modern liberal-democratic societies,

she takes for granted what appears critically problematic in Belarus namely very basic public consensus as for necessity to hold to certain fundamental democratic institutions and values. Mouffe highlights that agonistic relation has to be guided by a minimal set of democratic procedures upon which corresponding conflicting parties had to agree in advance. Whichever minimal (formal) such a prerequisite can be the very consensus (often the implicit one) concerning its necessity indicates a shared acknowledgment of fundamental elements of a democratic form of life as valuable. It is the existence of this shared basis – or the democratic framework, as I prefer to call it -- that prevents the conflicting parties from considering each other as enemies subject to extermination. That is the democratic frame enables a given plural society to escape the destructiveness of antagonistic relations. Mediation provided by legitimate democratic channels allows for redefining (potential) antagonisms into agonistic relations, enemies into opponents.

In Belarus, on the contrary, the democratic framework ensured by the state’s Constitution has lost its validity what caused a deepest political crisis and led to the antagonistic polarization of the official authorities on one hand and the democratic forces on the other hand. Both confronting parties do not recognize the legitimacy of the opponent. Thus Belarusian case, in a negative way so to say, proofs that society needs a political legitimization of conflicts in order to tame antagonisms and to avoid the use of violence -- from authoritarian arbitrariness to physical suppression. It is noteworthy therefore that Mouffean thesis that democracy needs to combine the We--They distinction with the recognition of a fundamental role of pluralism is applicable as a kind of regulative idea to current Belarusian society albeit receives different meaning and requires different practical steps. Unlike the liberal-democratic world, the Belarusian state has an ultimate problem with the recognition of pluralism. That is why in order to overcome the current political antagonism some extra-measures aiming at restoration of the basic democratic framework must be undertaken.

Given that the democratic framework does not have objective validity in the current political situation in Belarus, we have to ask what could serve as a uniting element for the conflicting parties? Is there a common reference point that is treated by each of them as a fundamental value and therefore might function as a starting point for reconciliation -- even if the parties interpret the meaning of this value and the correct way to preserve it differently? Theoretically, the country's independence could play the role of such a uniting value. However, it does not exclude the urgent need for minimal restoration of the democratic framework namely for the release of political prisoners and ending the persecution of free-thinking citizens. Hence transformation of the today antagonism into an agonistic relation (i.e. transformation of enemies into adversaries) is only possible under the condition of actualization and validation of the very basic ethical principles – such as recognition of the absolute value of human life and freedom, and respect for a person’s dignity. Indeed, after the events of August 9-11 and further development of the state’s terror, Belarusian society needs a kind of ethical re-framing of the political field. Thus a Belarusian way to a democracy in which the we-they distinction is combined with the recognition of the fundamental role of pluralism might start with a systematic combination of the unconditional value of the state’s sovereignty with the recognition of the absolute value of life and basic human rights of Belarusian citizens – everyone individually.


Mouffe Ch. On the Political. L.–N. Y.: Routledge, 2006.

Schmitt C. The Concept of the Political. New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1976.