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Turkish, Russian, Iranian Leaders Play The Autocratic Blame Game

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan often resorts to the blame game when he's under pressure. (file photo)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan often resorts to the blame game when he's under pressure. (file photo)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a near monopoly on power in his country, wielding robust control over the economy, the media, and the army.

Yet the authoritarian leader has blamed foreign "plots" and domestic saboteurs for the currency crisis and economic hardship plaguing the country.

Having dominated Turkish politics for more than 15 years, first as prime minister and since 2014 as president, Erdogan has blamed the plummeting value of the national currency, the lira, on "economic terrorists on social media" and a "political, underhand plot" by the United States, a NATO ally.

Erdogan's provocative remarks have raised eyebrows, but the combative leader has often resorted to the blame game when his back is against the wall.

He blamed a failed coup in 2016 on U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen without providing any evidence. He then instigated a massive purge on tens of thousands of alleged Gulen supporters in Turkey that rights groups said was a pretext to stifle dissent.

But Erdogan is not the only autocratic leader to condemn domestic and foreign enemies to deflect blame and attention from his own failings.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Russian President Vladimir Putin have also blamed Western "plots," fifth columnists, and "foreign agents" for the countries' economic and political plights.

"A strongman particularly needs a scapegoat," says Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based political analyst. "Whether it's another country, ethnicity, or religious minority, they've always had scapegoats to try to explain away the things that go wrong. It's in their nature because the concentration of power is in their own hands."

'Economic War'

Amid fears that Turkey may be falling into an economic crisis, the Turkish lira has hit record lows against the dollar. Deteriorating relations with Washington have accelerated the fall of the currency, which has dropped in value by as much as 45 percent this year.

Washington has imposed sanctions on two Turkish government ministers over a detained American pastor in Turkey who is being charged with terrorism, and last week Washington raised tariffs on the import of Turkish metals.

In response, Erdogan said Turkey was the target of an "economic war," and he urged Turks to sell their dollars and euros in a desperate attempt to shore up the plunging lira.

"It would not be rational to explain all the depreciation and the volatility [of the lira] on an attack," says Can Slecuki, a Turkey-based economist and board member of the Istanbul-based think tank Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. "The depreciation of the lira is due to actual economic reasons. Add to this the tension with the U.S. and you have the recipe for high volatility."

Economists say Ankara must increase interest rates to ease rising inflation, but Erdogan has called it un-Islamic. He has said high interest rates cause high inflation, which many economists reject.

"We've had the erosion of institutions because everything has been concentrated in Erdogan's hands," says Jenkins. "We've had the erosion of expertise because Erdogan has surrounded himself with people who just say 'yes' to him, and the other problem is he has his own ideas about the economy that dictate Turkish economic policy."

Erdogan's tactics mirror those used in Iran and Russia, regional powers ruled by autocratic leaders who have been accused of systemic corruption and economic mismanagement. Like Ankara, both Tehran and Moscow have likewise blamed outside forces for their troubles.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (file photo)
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (file photo)

Khamenei, who has ruled Iran since 1989 and has the final say on all important state matters, has blamed foreign "enemies" for the country's economic crisis, the fall of the national currency, the rial, and widespread antigovernment protests over poor economic conditions.

He has also particularly criticized Israel -- the "Zionists" -- and the "satanic" United States.

But economists say much of Iran's economic woes are self-inflicted, even if U.S. sanctions have exacerbated the problems. The Iranian economy is heavily controlled by the state, is dependent on oil and gas, and burdened by price controls and subsides.

"The Iranian government has failed to make the kind of free-market structural reforms and liberalizations required for growth," says Steve Hanke, an economist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "The economy has been completely mismanaged since the Islamic Revolution [in 1979]. If there would be big reforms the economy would have a huge boom and very rapid growth."

Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)

Russia's own export-dependent economy fell into recession in 2014, when world oil prices collapsed and Western countries imposed sanctions on Moscow over its armed seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine.

But Putin has blamed the occasional tumbling of the ruble and economic stagnation in recent years on what the Kremlin has described as Western attempts to "contain and weaken Russia" -- ignoring what many analysts describe as years of economic mismanagement and Moscow's failure to reduce the country's excessive dependency on oil and gas exports.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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