Venezuela is experiencing a severe economic and humanitarian crisis. The policies of President Nicolas Maduro have propelled the country into a downward spiral, and political turmoil is deepening the chaotic situation in the country. In both the international community and among Venezuelans, there lies a growing concern over the steady erosion of democracy and the rule of law. The political authorities of neighboring countries and others have opted for political and economic pressure through sanctions as a means of pressuring the Maduro government to recommit to the rule of law and to maintain the negotiations with the opposition.
The Maduro government stresses that the pressure coming from the Western Hemisphere and Europe are part of a U.S.-led international conspiracy to overthrow him and take control of Venezuela’s oil resources. In response to these attempts, the Venezuelan government is seeking to find alternative allies to remain in power and release itself from the pressure. Amid these sanctions and pressures from some international actors, the regime has intensified its efforts to improve Venezuela’s diplomatic ties outside the hemisphere, particularly with like-minded international actors.
Contrary to the presumptions, a number of countries have started to show willingness to cooperate with the Venezuelan regime. At this point, Turkey’s growing enthusiasm for Venezuela, despite international pressure, is a case worth looking at in. Increasingly authoritarian Turkey has been one of Maduro’s most consistent supporters in recent years. Through an unprecedented rapprochement between two countries, a new era of diplomatic relations between Ankara and Caracas erupted after 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Although Turkey has historically never had close relations with Venezuela, bilateral relations between these two countries have flourished as international pressure has mounted against Venezuela. High level official visits have increased, and economic and commercial ties have accelerated following the failed coup attempt in Turkey.
Since 2016, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has paid two official visits to Turkey. These were the first ever visits to Turkey by a Venezuelan head of state. Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan also voiced his intention to visit Venezuela this year. However, due to some logistical issues, Erdogan’s visit has been repeatedly postponed. The Venezuela-Turkey Joint Committee was held last year under the co-chairmanship of the Foreign Ministers including the financial, commercial, energy, agribusiness, industry and military fields. On this occasion, the two countries signed several agreements on aviation, tourism, culture, agriculture, and international crime.
Turkey has already started to significantly increase its investment in Venezuela. Turkey aims to boost its current bilateral trade volume from $150 million to $1 billion in the short term. The Turkish government is even considering the possibility of handling the transactions via payments in national currencies or through the barter system which envisages the exchange of oil and food and medicine. Furthermore, while many international airline companies have suspended their flights to Venezuela, Turkey’s flagship carrier, Turkish Airlines, launched flights to Havana and Caracas in December 2017.
In Turkey, the Venezuelan government has found a helping hand at a critical time. It may be claimed that Turkey has strong economic incentives to establish ties with Venezuela and those incentives lead the Erdogan government to offer explicit support to the Maduro regime. However, the internal and external factors behind Turkey’s recent drift towards Venezuela cannot be limited to mere economic factors.
Experiencing a democratic backsliding, Turkey has recently aligned itself politically with autocratic powers. Through joining a group of like-minded repressive regimes, Erdogan aims to stay in power and continue sliding away from democratic norms. His authoritarian inclinations have pushed Turkey, which was once a democratically transitioning power, to side with other authoritarian regimes to confront pressure from traditional Western democracies. By incorporating his regime into a broader autocratic coalition, President Erdogan intends to discredit any counter challenges to his authority.
Turkey’s increasingly robust ties with the autocratic Maduro government fits with the growing tendency among authoritarian regimes to support one another in a response to pressures from democratic states. The Turkey-Venezuela relationship shows that authoritarian states who feel vulnerable to Western pressures are more prone to create an alliance among themselves against any potential efforts which would decrease the chances of the regime’s survival. The common traits of these authoritarian governments are exposure to harsh criticism of liberal democratic countries in terms of democracy, rule of law and human rights. In response to criticism, these illiberal regimes appear eager to come together and strengthen their solidarity. This solidarity includes a number of political, economic and cultural areas. The resurgence of authoritarianism in global scale has unfortunately grown the potential members of this coalition to include Turkey, Hungary, and Poland. This illiberal consensus raises the possibility that other countries which would become flawed democracies or lean to authoritarian rule in the close future will likely join this coalition.
On the other hand, leading autocratic regimes like Russia are broadly expanding their political and ideological influences in other countries. Russia’s increasing influence in autocratic countries plays a significant role in challenging the democracy and liberal values around the world and strengthening the ties between authoritarian states in international politics. Ironically, Turkey’s unprecedented rapprochement with isolated Venezuela coincided with the growing influence of Russia in Turkey. During this era, Turkey’s relations with the United States and other Western allies have further deteriorated. Especially after the coup attempt in 2016, Turkish foreign policy dramatically drifted away from the transatlantic alliance and turned toward Russia. Longstanding Russian allies have become potential partners for Turkey. Therefore, it would not be wrong to claim that the recent Turkish-Venezuelan rapprochement is inextricably linked to the recent Russian influence on Turkish politics. The same argument would also be relevant to explain the improved relations between former Soviet states such as Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan. Recent developments in Europe and other part of the world present more opportunities for Russian subversion in the world order.
It is too early to make predictions on the lifespan of recent coalition of authoritarian countries. Yet, the factors behind Turkey’s recent rapprochement with Venezuelan authoritarian government offer significant evidence of the scope of this emerging transnational coalition. Any attempts to isolate the repressive Maduro government in the international community must keep this reality in mind. Though Maduro’s victory in a sham election (which guarantees him a new six-year term) is sure to bring increased international pressure on his regime, he is likely to find continued support from new alternative allies. Multilateral isolation efforts against illiberal regimes like the Maduro government in Venezuela must be mindful of its limits given the emerging support network of a coalition of like-minded autocratic regimes.
Imdat Oner is a PhD Student in International Relations at Florida International University.