by Abdullah Bozkurt
Attempts to forge robust ties with the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela by the Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reinforce the view that the foreign policy of this supposedly NATO ally is increasingly driven by the ideological zealotry of Turkey’s Islamist rulers and their neo-nationalist partners, who despise the West and advocate closer ties with the Iran-Russia axis. Erdoğan’s troubling capacity to display erratic and impulsive behavior just to swipe at Turkey’s allies serves as a catalyst for this reorientation that is hard to reconcile with the long-term national interests and security needs of this 80-million-strong nation.
The flurry of high-level contacts between the two countries have already resulted in several bilateral agreements, and the Erdoğan government has been solidifying the relationship at the expense of its main ally, the United States, a country that was described by Venezuelan officials as the empire in the north that harbors nothing but evil. The Security Cooperation Agreement signed on Oct. 6, 2017 in the Turkish capital suggests Turkey’s relations with Erdoğan’s newfound friend go well beyond trade and business interests and in fact amounts to developing a new strategic partnership.
The frequent visits of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro Moros to Turkey in a short period of time are also testament to this fact. Maduro first came to Istanbul to attend the World Energy Congress on Oct. 9-13, 2016, and met with the Turkish president, followed by another meeting on Sept. 10, 2017 in Astana on the sidelines of the Science and Technology Summit held by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). A month later, on Oct. 5 and 6, 2017, Maduro paid Venezuela’s first presidential visit to Turkey and returned on Dec. 13, 2017 to participate in another OIC meeting in Istanbul as head of the country that holds the presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The exchange of visits at the ministerial level to flesh out the framework policies agreed at the leaders’ level has also been noted in this traffic.
The security agreement, which is still pending approval in the Turkish Parliament, includes areas of joint work such as “information, intelligence, assessment sharing and operational cooperation.” Under the pretense of battling terrorism, the two sides commit themselves to preventing activities of people, entities and media outlets that are associated with terrorism. Given how the two countries define legitimate opposition and critical voices as terrorists, this is quite troubling news but at the same time hardly surprising because both leaders have been associated with major human rights violations and large-scale crackdowns on rights and freedoms.
According to this security agreement, Turkey and Venezuela agree to share information on all kinds of weapons systems and technologies, offer mutual training programs, develop joint security policies and appoint liaison officers to monitor the implementation of the deal. The agreement also bars the countries from sharing any information or documents with third parties without prior written authorization. The security deal is valid for five years with automatic renewal for one-year terms unless either party requests its termination in writing six months in advance. Although it was a security agreement that was supposed to be signed by interior or defense ministers, the deal was signed by Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, and Jorge Arreaza Montserrat, his Venezuelan counterpart.
The key operative and point man who has been pushing Turkey’s cozying up to Venezuela is Kerem Ali Sürekli, a deputy from Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) representing Izmir province. He leads the Turkey-Venezuela Parliamentary Friendship Group and has frequently been in contact with the Venezuelan ambassador to Turkey, Jose Gregorio Bracho Reyes. Sürekli, a lawyer by profession, is a staunchly anti-Western figure and often bashes the United States and the European Union in his comments and speeches. In one of his tweets dated March 12, 2017, for example, he stated that the real face of Europe, which has a crusader mindset, had once again been displayed.
Closer ties with Venezuela are also endorsed by Erdoğan’s neo-nationalist coalition partners in the Vatan (Homeland) Party, which is led by fascist, racist politician Doğu Perinçek. In an interview given to Sputnik’s Turkish service on Oct. 10, 2017, Yunus Soner, deputy chairman of the anti-Western Vatan Party responsible for international relations, bragged about how the two countries managed to build up trust on an anti-US platform. He said both Turkey and Venezuela might halt trade in dollars and start settling foreign exchange accounts in national currencies, bypassing the US financial system. “For Maduro, Turkey strengthened its position as an ally against the US,” he maintained.
Although the two sides appear eager to trumpet the benefits of improved ties, the substance of bilateral relations and the actual implementation may lag behind what they are trying to portray. Nevertheless, the follow-up visits by ministers to monitor the performance of agreements such as Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci’s visit to Caracas in January 2018 and the expected visit by Erdoğan to Venezuela may flesh out what the two countries’ leaderships have been saying publicly. For one, Turkey’s imports from Venezuela got a spike in the first two months of the year amounting to $165 million, an increase of 617 percent over the same period of 2017. Considering that imports from Venezuela were $117 million for the entire year of 2017, the increased engagement has started to yield results, at least in nominal figures. Turkey’s exports did not change during the same period.
To some extent, Turkey’s growing links with this Latin American country follow in the footsteps of Iran’s relations with Venezuela thanks to successful lobbying by the powerful pro-Iranian faction within the Erdoğan government. This faction finally succeeded in shifting the axis of Turkish foreign policy dynamics following a massive purge of the Turkish Foreign Ministry that in one-and-a-half years wiped out 30 percent (some 500 diplomats) of its staff on false terrorism charges without any effective administrative or judicial investigations. My contacts at several Latin American embassies in the Turkish capital have told me how Erdoğan’s drive to appeal to Muslims in the Americas was actually masterminded by Iranian networks operating out of Caracas.
It is difficult to understand or make any real sense of the Erdoğan regime’s ultimate objective in forging closer ties with an isolated and sanction-hit country. On the one hand, this is like a poke in the eyes of Turkey’s decades-long traditional allies, mainly the United States, and on the other it actually undermines Turkey’s opening up to other Latin American nations that are suspicious of Maduro’s intentions in the region. The only plausible explanation would the ideological underpinnings of Erdoğan’s Islamist government and its neo-nationalist partners, which I believe is quite shortsighted.
Perhaps the Turkish president, increasingly isolated on international platforms, found a willing partner in Caracas to work with in what appears to be a protest movement against major powers in the West. It may partially have something to do with domestic politics as well because this gives Erdoğan the ammunition to feed his core constituency that he is not alone in his crusade of a modern-day Don Quixote-like battle against today’s windmills.