The death of Senator John McCain after a year-long battle with brain cancer has drawn an outpouring of condolences from every corner of the globe, some of the most poignant and diverse of which came from southeastern Europe, where the Arizona Republican’s unique brand of personal diplomacy forged bonds with democratic leaders and irritated illiberal regimes.
Known for packing Congressional recesses with extensive global travels, McCain, a war hero, statesman, and international human rights advocate, used his office to shed light on conflicts underreported by major Western news outlets.
“If I learned one thing from John it’s that you cannot protect America sitting in Washington,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who accompanied McCain on nearly 50 trips to Iraqi and Afghan war zones, told Josh Rogin of The Washington Post. “You can’t learn how this world works watching cable news.”
His August 2008 Wall Street Journal op-ed, “We Are All Georgians”—published upon the ceasefire that followed Russia’s invasion of Georgia’s breakaway enclave of Abkhazia—was a dire warning against Western diplomatic complacency.
“For anyone who thought that stark international aggression was a thing of the past, the last week must have come as a startling wake-up call,” he said of the first major cross-border military invasion on European soil in nearly half a century. “The world has learned at great cost the price of allowing aggression against free nations to go unchecked.”
Penned in the latter stages of his last failed presidential bid, the editorial proved prescient in Ukraine upon Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
“Sad news for all Ukrainian people—a great friend of Ukraine, Senator John McCain, has died,” tweeted Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, whose nation routinely hosted the U.S. legislator.
“We will never forget his invaluable contribution to the development of democracy and freedom in Ukraine and the support of our state.”
Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman lauded McCain as “a real friend and the embodiment of a principled politician,” and Oleksandr Turchynov, Ukraine’s Secretary of National Security and Defense, credited McCain with Kyiv’s ongoing U.S. aid.
“It was thanks to his efforts that Ukraine finally began to receive military aid from the U.S. He was strong and honest person, he always professed his beliefs. We will always remember,” he tweeted.
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili called the Arizona senator “a national hero of Georgia whom our people will never forget.”
Margvelashvili’s top diplomat, Davit Zalkaliani, called McCain “a defender of small countries worldwide, fighting for freedom, peace, security and democracy,” echoing sentiments conveyed by Georgia’s ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili, who issued a video condolence calling McCain’s passage “an unbelievable loss for Georgia, and a very huge lost for the world.”
“If 1/3 of the leaders of the west had such a strong willpower [and] bravery, no Russian aggression would have followed in Ukraine and Syria,” tweeted Grigol Vashadze, a presidential candidate for Tbilisi’s opposition United National Movement.
In Moscow, often the target of McCain’s ire, social media commemorations by state officials ranged from stoically frank to outright pugnacious.
“He was neither a friend nor ally of Russia, on the contrary, he was our ardent opponent,” said Russian parliamentarian Leonid Slutsky, a subject of U.S. sanctions, according to The Washington Post. “McCain was an outstanding American hawk.”
Russian legislator Alexei Pushkov used McCain’s own words to ridicule the late senator’s calls to oust Syrian autocrat Bashar al Assad.
“‘Gaddafi is on the way out, next in line with Bashar Assad,’ John McCain said 7 years ago, in August 2011,” wrote Pushkov. “Assad’s overthrow and death did not wait for McCain. Politics and fate decided otherwise. McCain’s plans to restructure the world under the total hegemony of the United States will not come true.”
McCain’s support for expanding NATO by adding members from eastern Europe – some former Warsaw Pact nations while under Soviet control – won him friends there as well.
“The Senator’s bravery and wisdom were inspiring for Montenegro and a big voice of support in the period when we were making democratic progress towards NATO membership,” said Prime Minister Duško Markovic in an official statement. “Senator John McCain was first of all a sincere friend of Montenegro and we will be forever grateful to him.”
Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who is currently pushing for the passage of a referendum that would open the doors to NATO membership, posted comments on Facebook, lamenting that the world has “lost one of the most dedicated politicians who truly believed in democracy.”
Bosnian Prime Minister Denis Zvizdic offered condolences to McCain’s family on Twitter, while Sarajevo’s Mayor Abdulah Skaka vowed to organize a formal commemoration of the later senator.
“The Bosnian people especially remember his noble engagement to stop the Bosnian war,” Skaka said. “When he called things by their real names, when he asked for just solutions. We highly appreciate his contribution to the overall help that the U.S. provided for Bosnian people.”
“People of #Kosovo & myself join the family, friends of @SenJohnMcCain, as well as entire American nation, in mourning his passing,” tweeted Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi. “One of his last foreign trips was in 2017 in #Kosovo, when I bestowed him our highest order of merit. He was one of the last true heroes of our era.”
Albanian President Ilir Meta and Prime Minister Edi Rama said Albanians were also mourning the loss of a good friend.
“Sen. McCain was a staunch supporter of Kosovo’s freedom and independence,” he wrote on Facebook. “He was one of the main supporters of Albania joining NATO. … Albanians will be forever grateful to him.”
This story originated in VOA’s Eurasia Division.