Tue, Feb 12, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Mysterious Turkish firm helped Maduro move US$900 million in gold

Turkey is once again implicated in a scheme to help an authoritarian regime avoid US sanctions, and Washington is not happy about it

By Onur Ant  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Yusha

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.

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