BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
In addition to the U.S. and European Union’s punitive actions against Turkey for various violations, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions last week against a Turkish company “involved in a global corruption and money-laundering network directed by Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro,” according to Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish Parliament and a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
This corrupt relationship is the result of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s support for Maduro’s regime, which could lead to more U.S. sanctions against Turkish firms and officials.
Erdemir wrote that U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control “designated Istanbul-based Mulberry Proje Yatirim for facilitating payments made as part of a ‘corruption network for the sale of [Venezuelan] gold in Turkey.’ Mulberry’s owner is an associate of Colombian national Alex Nain Saab Moran, who has laundered hundreds of millions of dollars for Maduro since 2009 by exploiting Venezuela’s food subsidy program Local Committees for Supply and Production, or CLAP. Treasury also accused Mulberry of purchasing food in Turkey on behalf of Venezuelan clients and marking up prices before selling it back to Venezuela. The [U.S. Treasury] department condemned Saab and his associates for ‘profiting from starvation.’”
The State Department’s Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams stated last week, “Venezuela has to go to places willing to trade gold illegally—that’s Turkey and Iran.”
Earlier this year, Marshall Billingslea, U.S. Treasury’s assistant secretary for terrorist financing, warned, “We are looking at the nature of Turkish-Venezuelan commercial activity, and if we assess a violation of our sanctions, we will obviously take action.” His warning came “shortly after a visit to Turkey by Tareck El-Aissami, Venezuela’s Minister of Industries and National Production, who is known for his links to Iran and Hezbollah.” The U.S. Treasury sanctioned El-Aissami in 2017 “for playing a significant role in international narcotics trafficking.”
Erdemir further reported that “Mulberry is just the tip of the Maduro regime’s illicit network in Turkey. Since 2017, with Erdoğan’s encouragement, Venezuelan government associates have established numerous front and shell companies in Turkey.” According to Bloomberg, in January 2018, shortly after Venezuela’s President visited Turkey, an Istanbul-based mysterious Turkish firm [Sardes] sprang into action by importing $41 million of gold from Venezuela. The following month, Sardes imported another $100 million of Venezuelan gold. “By November, when 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 $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.”
Bloomberg added, “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.”
Erdemir indicated that U.S. Treasury’s sanction against the Turkish firm is just the first step. “The Venezuelan government’s gold mining company, Minerven, established a joint gold venture called Mibiturven with the obscure Turkish company Marilyns Proje Yatirim, which shares an address with Mulberry. Similarly, Grupo Iveex Insaat, a tiny Turkish company tied to Maduro that has capital of just $1,775 and no refineries, was responsible for eight percent of Venezuela’s oil exports in April 2019.”
Erdemir concluded: “Under Erdoğan’s rule, Turkey has become a permissive jurisdiction for illicit finance and sanctions evasion. The Turkish president’s solidarity with sanctioned countries such as Venezuela and Iran is part of his overall pivot toward authoritarian and kleptocratic regimes and his challenge to the U.S.-led liberal international order. Unless Washington goes after the remaining elements of the Maduro regime’s network in Turkey, Erdoğan will see this inaction as a license for further transgressions involving not only Venezuela but other rogue regimes, as well.”
One has to wonder how is it that the U.S. Treasury Department placed sanctions against a Turkish firm given the reluctance of Trump to take any action against Turkey.
Could it be that Trump was unaware of the Treasury’s anti-Turkish sanctions, being too busy with sending tweets against his political opponents and making racist comments about black members of Congress?
In a meeting with Republican U.S. Senators last week, Trump asked for more time before implementing Congressionally-mandated sanctions against Turkey for purchasing Russian S-400 missiles.
Any inaction by Trump on legally-mandated sanctions on Turkey would serve to encourage Erdoğan to further undermine U.S. and NATO interests. Congress should take decisive steps to force Trump to implement severe sanctions against Turkey.