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The rise of a new Turkey-Venezuela alliance

Cengiz Özbek
January 30, 2019

As Venezuela's political crisis deepens, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan has thrown his support behind President Nicolas Maduro. In recent years, the two leaders have found their interests increasingly intertwined.

Venezuela Erdogan bei Maduro
Image: Reuters/M. Quintero

When opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself Venezuela's interim president last week, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was one of the few state leaders to call Nicolas Maduro to express his unwavering support for the embattled leader. In a sense, the Turkish president was paying his respects to Maduro, who came out in support Erdogan after the failed coup in Turkey in July 2016.

Read more: Venezuela's political crisis: How did we get here?

On the telephone Erdogan reportedly told Maduro: "My brother, stand firm." Maduro, meanwhile, received plenty of support on social media from across the world, and especially from Turkey, where the #WeAreMaduro hashtag soon gained popularity. For a change, both those on the political left and supporters of Erdogan agreed on something, namely that Maduro should stay in power. So it was not all that surprising that Maduro gave his first interview after Guaido's declaration to a Turkish television station.

Shared interests

Serkan Bayram, a member of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and chairman of the Turkey-Venezuela Inter-Parliamentary Friendship Group, says there are political and economic reasons for the increasingly close relationship between both countries. "Turkey is reacting to the fact that a president who was elected by 68 percent of the populace is now being deposed through undemocratic means," says Bayram, who believes that Venezuela's self-declared leader Guaido is being instrumentalized "by global actors."

Read more: German politicians demand elections in Venezuela

Turkey, says Bayram, is working to boost trade in general and Venezuela falls within this policy. According to the Turkish government statistics, Turkey in 2018 imported $900 million (€780 million) in precious metals from the Latin American country. Much of this is believed to be gold. And Venezuela announced last year that it intends refine its gold in Turkey, rather than Switzerland, to bypass international restrictions.

There have also been a number of mutual state visits between Turkey and Venezuela since Maduro's first trip to Turkey in October 2016. Returning from the G20 summit in Argentina in late 2018, Erdogan made a stop-over in Caracas, where he lambasted the United States and international sanctions imposed on Venezuela.

Erdogan acting out of self-interest

Journalist Metin Yegin believes Erdogan's interest in closer ties with Venezuela is not purely economic. "Erdogan has attempted to act as America's eastern nemesis," he says. "He is cultivating that image now. And Erdogan wants to show his supporters that he is on the side of the oppressed."

Read more: What's at stake for Russia in Venezuela?

Esra Akgemci, an expert on Latin America at Turkey's Selcuk University, believes Erdogan's vocal support for Maduro is merely rhetoric. Erdogan, she says, is hoping to arouse sympathy as a "victim of a coup." Akgemci believes the Turkish president is acting out of self-interest: "I think Erdogan supports Maduro primarily because it strengthens his own position. If the political balance shifts tomorrow, this could also impact the extent to which Turkey supports Venezuela."

Despite the ideological differences between the two, Akgemci says they have certain things in common. "Both are seen as authoritarian state leaders. And they are both increasingly isolated. On top of that both countries struggle with similar economic problems, and neither are fond of the US."

Maduro's motives

Journalist and Latin America expert Asli Pelit argues that Maduro has gravitated towards Turkey ever since Venezuela's financial crisis led to its dire humanitarian situation. Turkey provides much needed food aid to the country, for example.

According to Pelit, Maduro has sought to find new international partners following the rise of right-leaning governments in Latin America in recent years opposed to his Socialist regime.

Meanwhile, Akgemci suggested that Maduro wants to establish a relationship with Erdogan that is akin to the one predecessor, Hugo Chavez, had with former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Venezuela standoff