(Athens, March 1st 2021, demonstration in solidarity with Dimitris Koufontinas. Photograph by Marios Lolos)
To those familiar with the intricacies of Greek politics, a hunger strike is far from anything new: there was the mass hunger strike of migrants in Athens at the time of the country’s debt upheaval a decade ago; the countless anarchists, leftists and other prisoners who have used this ultimate appeal to correct injustice; and even the 19th century poet and lawyer who died protesting the imprisonment conditions of the striking mine workers he had previously defended in court. Hunger strikes have been this strange accompaniment to the history of the Hellenic Republic. Strange, in that thanks to its threshold appeal (“if I am not granted this right, I shall cross the life-death threshold; I shall die”) the hunger strike has come to outline and to define some of the very thresholds, the boundaries of the freedoms granted to the Republic’s subjects (“at the very least, you shall be granted this right”). As a struggle by those with the least of rights, the hunger strike – quite literally – outlines the minimum, what this ‘least of rights’ is meant to be for everyone.
The 30-year old 19th century poet, Dimitris Paparigopoulos, was the first and so far the only hunger striker that crossed the threshold between life and death. Nearly one and a half centuries since, hunger strikers’ demands have been settled in some shape or form, with authorities typically stepping in on the 25th hour, at the penultimate moment, to reach a concession, to satisfy a degree of the prisoners’ demands. This time round, things seem to be different.
In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, at a time when even the UN warns against a pandemic of ensuing human rights abuses, news of yet another hunger striker in Greece has been met somewhat blandly. Inside the country, the hunger striker, Dimitris Koufontinas, could hardly be more of a symbolic figure. A key member of 17 November, the guerrilla group that was active for over a quarter of a century, between 1975 and 2002, Koufontinas turned himself in in September 2002, after the group’s dismantling by the police had commenced. A near-full two decades after his arrest, Koufontinas still reflects much of a polarisation within Greek society: on the one hand, there are those who still recognise in him the group’s popular appeal and the force of its vengeance against politicians, media moguls and industrialists – and especially in the Third Hellenic Republic’s early hours, in the years after 1974, such force was cathartic for many. On the other hand, there are those who see Koufontinas not only as a remorseless murderer, but as a dangerous political foe.
For the sitting Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the feud is personal: it was his brother-in-law, Paulos Bakoyiannis, that was murdered by the group in September 1989. The current minister of public order (responsible for the police), Michalis Chrysochoidis, was again in charge of the ministry in 2002 when the group was dismantled, following the accidental detonation of a bomb carried by one of its members at the port of Piraeus. In the eyes of many, Chrysochoidis (on paper, a social-democrat) was handed the ministry by the current (conservative) government as an undeclared sign of gratitude for dismantling November 17 all those years ago.
But what is about to unfold in the hours and days ahead in Greece far exceeds the personal feud, even if it reflects the Greek political scene’s glaring nepotism and clan-like intricacies. If, as it now appears most likely, Koufontinas dies, a major trait in the Greek political scene’s underlying idea will die with him: this idea – however illusionary – that political feuds reach only up to a certain limit, and that this limit is most certainly within the threshold of life. There have certainly been murders from the side of the Greek state – dozens of them – but never has an individual been left to die as publically and knowingly as now. And a hunger striker dying during in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic would make a mockery out of the Greek state’s absurdly strict quarantine measures, some of which clearly have no relation to medical guidelines the world over, including the night-time curfews during weekdays and evening-time curfews during weekends (!) as the subjects are seen as workers first, consumers second – and their own persons never. Measures that have been introduced and imposed in the name of preserving life by the same authorities that are about to, knowingly, consciously and blatantly, let their foe die. We are on and at the edge: we are now staring at the threshold, at that very last slice before the cycle is complete.