How a mys­te­ri­ous Turk­ish firm helped Maduro move $900 mn in gold

Business Standard - - WORLD -

Two months af­ter Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro vis­ited his coun­ter­part Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan in Ankara, a mys­te­ri­ous com­pany called Sardes sprang into ex­is­tence.

The firm started busi­ness with a bang in Jan­uary of 2018, when it im­ported about $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 $100 mil­lion worth to Turkey.

By Novem­ber, when Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der au­tho­ris­ing sanc­tions on Venezue­lan gold -af­ter send­ing an en­voy to warn Turkey off the trade, Sardes had shut­tled $900 mil­lion of the pre­cious metal out of the coun­try. Not bad for a com­pany with just $1 mil­lion in cap­i­tal, ac­cord­ing to reg­u­la­tory fil­ings in Istanbul.

It’s not the first time that Turkey has po­si­tioned it­self as a work-around for coun­tries fac­ing U.S. sanc­tions, po­ten­tially un­der­min­ing Wash­ing­ton’s ef­forts to iso­late gov­ern­ments it con­sid­ers hos­tile or cor­rupt. Ankara has of­ten tested the bound­aries of U.S. tol­er­ance, and the al­liance be­tween the key NATO mem­bers is now es­sen­tially bro­ken, ac­cord­ing to two se­nior U.S. of­fi­cials.

Shift­ing Al­liances

Long one of Amer­ica’s 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 Na­tional Assem­bly leader Juan Guaido de­clared him­self Venezuela’s right­ful pres­i­dent last month, the U.S. and many other Western coun­tries rushed to de­clare their sup­port for him. Turkey aligned it­self with those be­hind Maduro.

It’s un­clear what un­der­pins Turkey’s sup­port for Maduro be­yond a gen­eral op­po­si­tion to U.S. 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 doesn’t rank among the top 20 trad­ing part­ners for Turkey, ac­cord­ing to data com­piled by Bloomberg.

Gold re­fin­ing

But that doesn’t mean Er­do­gan can’t use Turkey’s $850 bil­lion econ­omy, the largest in the Mid­dle East, to help friends in need. While Sardes’s gold cor­ri­dor ap­pears to have closed in Novem­ber, there are other av­enues. A Sardes spokesper­son did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Er­do­gan trav­elled 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 ma­te­ri­alised be­cause Ah­latci was wary of fall­ing foul of U.S. 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 be­cause of the sen­si­tiv­ity of the mat­ter.

Trea­sury visit

An Ah­latci ex­ec­u­tive was among busi­ness lead­ers who last week met Mar­shall Billingslea, an as­sis­tant sec­re­tary at the U.S. Trea­sury re­spon­si­ble for com­bat­ing ter­ror­ist fi­nanc­ing, who was in Turkey on a twiceyearly 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 dis­cussing a pri­vate meet­ing.

Ah­latci did not re­turn calls by Bloomberg. His son, Ah­met Metin, said by phone the com­pany “won’t com­ment.”

Billingslea’s pri­or­ity in Turkey wasn’t Venezuela, but com­pli­ance with sanc­tions on Iran, ac­cord­ing to two peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter. Some U.S. of­fi­cials have said they’re con­cerned there could be a con­nec­tion be­tween the two, though no ev­i­dence has been pre­sented so far to sug­gest there is.

Ni­co­las Maduro ( right) with Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan

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