ISTANBUL — In another sign of a growing gap between Turkey and its traditional allies in the West, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has thrown his weight behind Venezuela’s embattled leader, Nicolas Maduro.
Erdogan joined Russia, China, Iran and Syria in defending Maduro, who is fighting for political survival after the leader of the legislature, Juan Guaido, declared himself president and was recognised as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state by the US government. European powers said they would side with Guaido unless Madura agreed to soon call elections.
“My brother Maduro! Stand tall, we are at your side,” Erdogan told Maduro in a phone call, Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said January 24. He added that Turkey rejected all “coup attempts.”
Kalin spread the hashtag #WeAreMADURO, which became the most popular trend among Turkish Twitter users. Pro-government media drew comparisons between the pressure on Maduro and the coup attempt against Erdogan in 2016.
Erdogan, 64, and Maduro, 56, share a deep distrust of US policies. Both have accused the United States of waging “economic war” against their countries.
Turkey’s relations with the United States have undergone a series of crises in recent years, while Ankara’s ties with Moscow, boosted by cooperation in Syria along with trade agreements and booming tourism, sparked concerns in the West that Turkey is turning away from its decades-old alliance with the United States and Europe.
At first glance, Turkey’s conservative leader, who heads a ruling party with roots in political Islam, and Venezuela’s socialist president may look like an odd couple. They are also on opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, in which Maduro backs Syrian President Bashar Assad and Turkey has been a main sponsor for rebels trying to topple the leader in Damascus.
However, Erdogan and Maduro share vital interests, analysts say. Turkey backed Maduro even before the latest crisis in Caracas. “Political problems cannot be resolved by punishing an entire nation,” Erdogan said last year in reference to US sanctions against the Maduro government.
Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at Saint Lawrence University in New York and non-resident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington, said Erdogan’s personal worldview played a big role in Turkish-Venezuelan relations.
“I think the core has to do with how personalised Turkish foreign policy has become and how fully it is shaped by President Erdogan’s ideological predilections and assumptions,” Eissenstat said via e-mail. “I think that he sees in Maduro’s stance a common resistance to Western — and especially American — hegemony.”
A pro-government observer in Turkey pointed out that Maduro supported Erdogan when it counted. Erdogan’s message of encouragement for Maduro to “stand tall” reflected “a sense of solidarity, since the Venezuelan leader expressed solidarity with Turkey during the July 15, 2016, coup attempt,” wrote Burhanettin Duran, a columnist for the newspaper Daily Sabah.
Some supporters of the Turkish president say Erdogan could become the target of a US-organised attempt to unseat him.
“In a way, being on Maduro’s side is being on Erdogan’s side,” Fatih Dagistanli, a presenter on Akit TV, a television station that is close to the Turkish government, said on a talk show January 26. “If Maduro is sent on his way, they will also wrap up Erdogan and send him off. This is the first step of sending off Erdogan.”
The Turkish leader often speaks of dark plots by outside forces to prevent Turkey from gaining strength as an international power. Turkish officials linked the Gezi riots of 2013 and the coup plot of 2016 to alleged efforts by the West to unseat Erdogan.
Eissenstat said Erdogan “sees in the current Venezuelan crisis a common echo of Gezi and the 2016 attempted coup — both of which he believes the Americans used to try to dislodge him.”
That perception has contributed to the close ties between the leaders of the two countries. Maduro attended Erdogan’s inauguration as Turkey’s president in Ankara last year and Erdogan visited Caracas in December.
Trade between Turkey and Venezuela has grown, with Turkish data showing the country imported $900 million in gold from Venezuela in the first nine months of the year, Reuters reported. The United States slapped sanctions on Venezuela’s gold trade last November to stop gold from the South American country being shipped to Turkey for refinement. US officials voiced concern that some of the gold might find its way to Iran in violation of sanctions on Iran, Bloomberg News reported.
Coming less than three months before local elections in Turkey, Erdogan’s support for Maduro and his criticism directed against the United States make sense for the president domestically as well, given a strong trend of anti-Americanism in the country.
A Turkish poll last year indicated that almost nine out of ten Turkish respondents said they see the United States as an enemy. Even Turkish observers who are sceptical of Erdogan share his rejection of US policies in Venezuela. “The post-modern coup attempt by the USA in Venezuela is unacceptable,” Murat Yetkin, a respected journalist, commented on Twitter.
Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.
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