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Political intrigue in Ankara leaves Moscow unimpressed

By Vladimir Mikheev, Special to Russia Beyond the Headlines
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Political intrigue in Ankara leaves Moscow unimpressed
Turkish Prime Ahmet Davutoglu, shown here in 2013, proved himself as a flexible moderate not prone to making rash and brutal solutions. File Photo by Maryam Rahmanian/UPI | License Photo

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced on May 5 that he was stepping down from his post. Preceding the forced resignation was an abrasive attack on the former professor-turned-politician by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"You should not forget how you got your post," the embattled head of state spouted at the man whom he handpicked first to be his foreign minister and in August 2014 his second-in-command.

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While at one time Erdogan used to say: "This is the era of a strong president and a strong prime minister," this is clearly no longer true.

The dramatic divergence between the two leaders started to reveal itself as Erdogan stepped up his drive for absolute power, scrapping the parliamentary system and introducing presidential rule. The more authoritative Erdogan became, the less tolerance he retained for dissent and protest.

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Despite Davutoglu's demonstrative loyalty to Erdogan, he failed to hide differences with the Turkish leader over the way to handle acute internal and external crises. Some bloggers have scrupulously identified as many as 27 issues on which the duo did not see eye to eye.

Moral zeal of a bookish professor

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On many counts, the ex-professor of political science from a fringe Istanbul university proved himself as a flexible moderate not prone to making rash and brutal solutions.

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Unlike Erdogan, who sometimes goes berserk when targeted by critics, Davutoglu did not approve of jailing journalists and academics who subscribe to a different set of values. The prime minister was not eager to label environmentalists as "agent provocateurs" and rough them up.

More importantly, Davutoglu seemed to be dead serious on combating corruption in high places. Acting in tandem with his deputy, Ali Babacan, he drafted the so-called "transparency package," which raised hackles among some top-notch functionaries of the ruling Justice and Development Party.

Last year, Davutoglu refused to shield four former ministers implicated in a corruption case from court hearings. He was quoted as saying: "We will break the arm of anyone involved in corruption, even if it is my brother." Rumor had it that Erdogan was not amused by the moral zeal of his appointee.

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Diplomat not a warrior

This episode could have been the turning point in the relationship between the two. As a result of elections on June 7, 2015, the AKP lost its parliament majority. Davutoglu would not rule out forming a coalition government with the main opposition party. It must have sounded like a blasphemy to the hard-core conservatives in the AKP and, in their view, amounted almost to high treason.

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The recent interaction with the European leaders enhanced Davutoglu's credentials as a pragmatist with whom it is possible to do business. But when he proposed to take back all those refugees or economic migrants who had crossed the Aegean Sea into Greece illegally, Erdogan immediately disavowed the offer.

Davutoglu must have also crossed a red line when he suggested restarting talks with the Kurdish militants. This ran counter to the deliberate demonization of all Kurds by pro-Erdogan officials and media in order to beef up nationalist sentiment.

Finally, while Erdogan became the target of consistent critical comments in the Western media, his prime minister remained largely spared and even praised occasionally for his flexibility.

This could be one of the root causes of an anonymous blog that recently accused Davutoglu of conspiring with the West and Turkey's enemies to challenge Erdogan, who is now routinely portrayed as an authoritarian ruler with an inflated ego and erratic habits.

Purges but no backfire

Davutoglu's hasty resignation amid the multitude of domestic and external problems besieging Turkey serves as a confirmation that internal squabbling in the AKP is the direct consequence of accumulated frustration. It is fair to assume that splits within the ruling party reveal deeper internal divisions, not necessarily embodied in the figure of the moustachioed university theoretician.

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Purges are inevitable, with members of the "inner circle" close to Davutoglu likely to be dismissed. Among the earmarked victims could be Mehmet Simsek, a deputy prime minister who is responsible for the economy and reportedly enjoys high repute with international investors. This would weaken the position of the relative pragmatics in the AKP and aggravate disagreements over the refugee crisis.

Speculations about the chances of Davutoglu rallying around supporters of like-minded parliamentarians and thus setting up a separate center of power within the AKP are groundless. Having no grass-roots constituency, Davutoglu is simply an official who owes his elevation to Erdogan.

No wonder his resignation failed to make huge waves, with only a temporary 4 percent depreciation of the Turkish lira against the U.S. dollar. He wisely made it clear that "no one heard, or will hear, a single word from my mouth against our president."

Revolution devouring its children

In Europe, Davutoglu's regular interlocutors will miss him as a person with whom they spoke the same language, in many senses, but now, as one Turkish commentator has put it, he is already "entering the 'pantheon' of political corpses."

In Russia, the resignation was duly recorded but was marked neither with relief (Davutoglu claimed originally it was he who ordered the shooting down of the Russian Su-24 jet in November 2015) nor regret. Moscow is aware that there is only one person who really calls the shots in Turkey, and he is intransigent when it comes to admitting mistakes.

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However, the end of the Davutoglu era will formally close the chapter of the failed diplomatic offensive known as "zero problems with neighbors," which was authored by the former academic. This is the death knell for the myth of the resurgent "Neo-Ottoman Empire," which envisions a new alliance with Turkey at the core of it as the gravitational center and power broker.

In fact, the rise to prominence of political Islam, largely sponsored and promoted by the AKP, the creeping Islamization of the state apparatus with an attendant spill-over into society, Erdogan's inflated ambitions of a sultan-style reign as president – all these developments in Turkey constitute a departure from the Ataturk legacy.

Fundamentally, it is a revolution in its own right. But revolutions are known to devour their own children, are they not?

This article originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines.

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