Andrey Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, was completing a speech when the sound of gunshots echoed from the pristine white walls of the Contemporary Arts Centre in Ankara, the Turkish capital.
Within seconds, the 62-year-old diplomat’s body was lying on the floor.
By the time the shocked audience – gathered for the opening of a photo exhibition titled: Russia through Turks' eyes – were able to scream, the room was filled by the shouts of Karlov’s 22-year-old assailant.
"Don’t forget about Aleppo, don’t forget about Syria," Mevlut Mert Altintas, an off-duty police officer, screamed as Karlov’s body lay lifeless on the floor.
Hours after the Monday evening shooting, Karlov, a career diplomat, was declared dead. He is the fourth Russian envoy to be killed in the line of duty, and the first since 1927.
The brutal murder, coupled with Altintas’ evocation of Syria, where Moscow is currently aiding the forces of Bashar al Assad, led to fears that the killing would cause another breakdown in Turkish-Russian relations.
However, in a testament to Karlov’s own legacy – both as a diplomat and as an active member of Ankara society – the relationship between the two countries seems outwardly unfazed.
The reaction from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, has been to signal unity despite the adversity.
"I condemn with hate the assassination of Russian Federation Ambassador Andrey Karlov (…) I see this as an attack on Turkey and its people,” Erdogan said in a Monday evening speech.
Putin took an equally aggressive tone in a televised address from the Kremlin on Monday evening:
“A crime has been committed and it was without doubt a provocation aimed at spoiling the normalisation of Russian-Turkish relations (…) There can only be one response – stepping up the fight against terrorism. The bandits will feel this happening.”
A "perfect diplomat"
To outside observers, the unified message came as a surprise both because Ankara and Moscow are on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war – Turkey backs Syrian opposition groups – and because relations between the two nations had only recently thawed after Turkey shot down a Russian jet near the Syrian border last year.
However, to those who had met him, the fact that the two nations were able to remain unified was the direct result of Karlov’s own efforts.
“He was a perfect diplomat,” said Emre Ersen, associate professor of International Relations at Marmara University in Istanbul.
Ersen, who last saw Karlov three days prior to his murder, described the Russian envoy as a social and active diplomat who was embraced by all sectors of Ankara society – politicians, civil society and academics – during a particularly trying time for the two nations.
“For seven months there was a very clear enmity between the two nations, but it was never directed at him,” he told TRT World.
Ersen said the fact that Karlov was able to stay in the country at a time when diplomatic and commercial ties between the two nations came to a standstill was clear proof that he was not a target of enmity.
The difficulties began in mid-November 2015, when Russian forces were accused of bombing Turkmen villages in Syria. Karlov was called to relay Ankara’s message directly to Moscow.
“It was stressed that the Russian side’s actions were not a fight against terror, but they bombed civilian Turkmen villages, and this could lead to serious consequences,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement at the time.
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For nearly a year after the downing of the Russian jet by Turkish F-16s on November 24, 2015, the Kremlin forbade its citizens from travelling to Turkey. That ban nearly crippled the economy of Antalya, a province home to swanky Mediterranean resorts whose success is heavily reliant on Russian tourism. Moscow also enforced a blockade on the importation of Turkish goods.
‘Architect of normalisation’
At the time, Karlov worked diligently towards a rapprochement.
“He was the architect of the normalisation process,” said Metin Gurcan, a Turkish expert on Eurasian relations and a former Turkish army officer.
Gurcan, who had twice met Karlov, said he “worked hard to bridge both the institutional and the personal trust gaps between Erdogan and Putin.”
Sener Akturk, associate professor at Koc University’s Department of International Relations, said Karlov was directly involved at the highest levels of state, making him an outlier compared to other Russian ambassadors.
“In the post-Soviet years, relations were traditionally conducted directly at the highest executive levels,” Akturk said.
As a career diplomat, Karlov studied at a prestigious diplomacy institute in Moscow that was also attended by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Azerbaijan President İlham Aliyev. His foreign service career began in 1976, including 20 years in North and South Korea.
His Ankara posting began in July 2013.
As tensions between Turkey and Russia began to mount, Karlov took it upon himself to address the divide between the nations.
Multiple sources speaking to TRT World agreed that it was Karlov’s reputation as a “sensible person” who was able to engage with academic and civil society circles made that made him a well-respected member of Ankara society.
“He knew how to listen to everybody,” Gurcan said.
“Karlov was not a simple bureaucrat. He wanted to hear ideas,” Gurcan added.
This ability to embrace all groups while accepting their different points of view earned him a lot of respect.
“All of those messages coming from Turkish officials, they’re all completely sincere, ” Ersen said.
Most recently, Karlov was believed to be meeting with Syrian opposition groups in Ankara.
“He defended an approach which has focused on distinguishing the moderate opposition from the hardliners,” Gurcan said.
According to sources, Karlov distinguished moderates from hardliners based on three criteria: whether they were “indigenous” Syrian groups, whether they “advanced an international agenda,” and if they had previously tried to engage in negotiations.
However, the reality on the ground may have made Karlov’s parameters hard to meet.
All sides of the Syrian conflict have been armed and funded by foreign nations. Along with Russia, who began their direct military involvement in September 2015, Assad’s forces receive support from Iran and China.
Maria Zaharova, spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry, said on Monday night that Karlov had been trying to “develop dialogue” with the opposition groups.
“This fact gives the tragedy a totally new angle,” she said in a statement to Russian Rossiya 1 TV channel.
Those who knew of Karlov’s work said that if the assailant’s intention was indeed to create a rift between Turkey and Russia, they failed.
That failure, said Ersen, the Istanbul-based professor, was embodied in the fact that Russia, Turkey, and Iran decided to continue with their tripartite meeting focusing on a ceasefire and evacuation of civilians from the Syrian city of Aleppo only a day after the killing.
“This makes the meeting even more important, it shows that Turkey and Russia won’t back away from talks on Syria.”