Two months after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro visited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, a mysterious company called Sardes sprang into existence.
The firm started business with a bang in January last year, when it imported about US$41 million worth of gold from Venezuela, the first such transaction between the two countries in records that go back 50 years.
The next month its volume more than doubled, with Sardes transporting almost US$100 million worth to Turkey.
By November, when US President Donald Trump signed an executive order authorizing sanctions on Venezuelan gold — after sending an envoy to warn Turkey off the trade — Sardes had shuttled US$900 million of the precious metal out of the country.
Not bad for a company with just US$1 million in capital, according to regulatory filings in Istanbul, Turkey.
It is not the first time that Turkey has positioned itself as a workaround for countries facing US sanctions, potentially undermining Washington’s efforts to isolate governments it considers hostile or corrupt.
Ankara has often tested the boundaries of US tolerance and the alliance between the key NATO members is now essentially broken, two senior US officials said.
Long one of the US’ most valued partners in a region straddling Europe and the Middle East, Turkey has increasingly found common interests with authoritarian countries, such as Russia, China, Iran and Venezuela.
When Venezuelan National Assembly leader Juan Guaido last month declared himself Venezuela’s rightful president, the US and many other Western countries rushed to declare their support for him. Turkey aligned itself with those behind Maduro.
It is unclear what underpins Turkey’s support for Maduro beyond a general opposition to US meddling and efforts to overthrow nominally democratic governments.
Erdogan faced a coup attempt in 2016 and has fashioned himself as a champion of elected leaders everywhere, even where votes were widely considered neither free nor fair.
Economic ties between the two nations are barely a factor: Venezuela does not rank among the top 20 trading partners for Turkey, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
However, that does not mean Erdogan cannot use Turkey’s US$850 billion economy, the largest in the Middle East, to help friends in need. While Sardes’ gold corridor appears to have closed in November, there are other avenues.
A Sardes spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Erdogan traveled to Caracas in December to introduce the Venezuelan leader to Ahmet Ahlatci, chairman of one of Turkey’s largest gold refiners.
The next month, Maduro’s close ally Tareck El Aissami reciprocated with a visit to an Ahlatci refiner in the central Turkish city of Corum.
Turkey’s pro-government media reported that Venezuelan gold would be processed there.
That never materialized because Ahlatci was wary of falling foul of US sanctions, according to a person with direct knowledge of the visit.
Instead, El Aissami surveyed refining technology to try and replicate it back home, the person said, asking not to be identified.
An Ahlatci executive was among business leaders who last week met Marshall Billingslea, an assistant secretary at the US Department of the Treasury responsible for combating terrorist financing, who was in Turkey on a twice-yearly visit, according to a participant in the meetings.
Billingslea warned the group to avoid dealing with what he called El Aissami’s “blood gold,” the person said, asking not to be identified.
Ahlatci did not return calls by Bloomberg. His son, Ahmet Metin, said by telephone that the company “won’t comment.”
Billingslea’s priority in Turkey was not Venezuela, but compliance with sanctions on Iran, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Some US officials have said they are concerned there could be a connection between the two, although no evidence has been found so far to suggest there is.
Under the sanctions regime, Iran sells billions of dollars of fuel to Turkey every year, but then finds most of its money trapped in Turkish bank accounts because of international restrictions on wiring the money back to Tehran. Elaborate schemes entailing the use of physical gold have in the past allowed the Islamic Republic to finance its foreign trade.
Mehmet Hakan Atilla, the former head of international banking at Turkish state-owned lender Turkiye Halk Bankasi AS, was convicted last year in a New York court of participation in such a scheme.
Turkey said the case relied on fabricated evidence and denied wrongdoing.
It also said it is not obliged to abide by unilateral US sanctions that block its ability to trade with neighbors and other economic partners.
Official data make it impossible to know where the Venezuelan gold ended up after it landed in Turkey. The Turkish government did not disclose the whereabouts of the gold.
Turkey’s financial assistance to US enemies is only one of the issues souring once-close relations.
Turkey has also been threatening to send its military, the second-largest in NATO, to attack Kurdish forces in Syria that the US backs. And the Turkish cleric that Turkey blames for the 2016 coup attempt, Fethullah Gulen, lives in Pennsylvania. The US has so far rebuffed Turkish attempts to get him extradited.
That bad blood means the two nations can no longer be considered friends, leaving them to negotiate purely on a transactional basis, according to the two US officials, who asked not to be identified discussing such matters.
While Trump has at times taken a hard line on getting Turkey into line with US goals -- he last month said that any action against the Kurds would “devastate Turkey economically” — other US officials are taking a more measured approach.
“President Trump has expressed his interest in expanding the trade relationship between the United States and Turkey, an avenue considerably more profitable than anything Maduro might have to offer,” White House National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said.
That ranking of foreign policy and trade priorities is not lost on Ankara, according to Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, head of the German Marshall Fund of the US office in the Turkish capital.
When a showdown with the US over Turkey’s continued detention of a US pastor led to US sanctions against two Turkish ministers last summer, the Turkish lira went into a tailspin and brought the economy to the brink of collapse. The crash probably pushed Turkey into its first recession in a decade.
“Turkey actually has no strategic interests in Venezuela. While it may be profiting from the gold trade, the returns of this are not likely to justify additional political risk that could hurt the Turkish economy,” Unluhisarcikli said. “In short, Turkey doesn’t have a dog in this fight and will refrain from escalation with the US over Venezuela.”
With assistance from Nick Wadhams, Saleha Mohsin and Margaret Talev
Since COVID-19 broke out in Taiwan, there has been a fair amount of news regarding discrimination and “witch hunts” against medical personnel, people under self-quarantine and other targets, such as the students of a school where an infection was discovered. Quarantine breakers are almost certainly on the loose and it is only natural for people to be vigilant. One in Chiayi was found by accident at a traffic stop because his helmet was not fastened. However, those who follow the rules by quarantining themselves should be encouraged to keep up the good work in a difficult situation, instead of being
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator-at-large Wu Sz-huai (吳斯懷) has said that there is a huge difference between Chinese military aircraft circling Taiwan along the edges of its airspace and invading Taiwan’s airspace. He also said that whether it is US or Chinese aircraft flying along or encircling Taiwan’s airspace, there is no legal basis to say that such actions imply a clear provocation of Taiwan, and asked the Ministry of National Defense not to mislead the public. People who hear this might think that it is not a very Taiwanese thing to say. US military activity in the vicinity of Taiwan
As the nation welcomes home Taiwanese who had been stranded in China’s Hubei Province — arguably one of the most dangerous places on Earth since the novel coronavirus outbreak began in its capital, Wuhan, late last year — problems surrounding the “quasi-charter flights” that brought them back have been largely overlooked. The media used the term to describe the two flights dispatched by Taiwan’s state-run China Airlines because they do not count as charter flights. Taiwanese wanting to board those flights had to travel — most likely by train — more than 1,000km from Hubei to Shanghai Pudong International Airport
As the COVID-19 pandemic spins out of control, many parts of the world are experiencing shortages of medical masks and other protective equipment. I am studying in Washington state, which at the time of writing is the US state that has suffered the largest number of deaths from the novel coronavirus. The week before last, UW Medicine — an organization that includes the University of Washington School of Medicine and associated medical centers and clinics — sent its volunteers an e-mail asking the public to make masks and donate them to hospitals. Attached to the message was a mask donation