The Path Forward for Kosova

02/17/2015 08:06 am ET | Updated Apr 19, 2015

Today, the people of Kosova celebrate seven years of independence. Given the struggle and sacrifices that have made such an anniversary possible, this is cause for celebration, but also for reflection in Prishtina, in Brussels, and in Washington. Europe's newest country continues to make substantial progress towards consolidating its democracy and securing its position in the Euro-Atlantic community, but plenty of hard work remains.

Kosova continued to face challenges in 2014, but on balance enjoyed many significant successes and steady progress. National elections deemed free and fair by international observers marked an important moment for democracy and a departure from previous elections marred by irregularities. The formation of a new coalition government in December after several months of deadlock was another critical step forward. Kosova's institutions and political parties adhered to their new constitutional order and played by the same rules even amid partisan setbacks. Prime Minister Isa Mustafa and First Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hashim Thaci, as Kosova's elected leaders, deserve America's support, and I look forward to working with them to assist Kosova in building a stable, secure, and prosperous future for itself, for the benefit of the Western Balkans, and for Europe.

But what comes next for Kosova? How does the new government in Prishtina meet major challenges and keep the country on the path toward reform and integration?

High on that list is the formation of a professional army under civilian control. For years, the United States and Kosova have discussed what's needed for a modern defensive force that could someday stand shoulder-to-shoulder with American forces. Moving ahead with this effort will bring Kosova much closer to that vision.

And like all countries, Kosova has the right to seek membership in any alliance in its interest. Yet while Kosova's neighbors have been welcomed into NATO's Partnership for Peace, Kosova has not been given a place at the table. It's simply unfair and unwise for one of the most Western-oriented countries in the world to still lack membership in this partnership. Once its army is formally established, it's past time to include Kosova.

But hard security is just one requirement for a prosperous democracy. For example, easing visa restrictions between Kosova and the EU will speed Kosova's integration into Europe, opening the door for a wide range of economic and strategic benefits. Breaking down those barriers will expand the person-to-person connections and commercial ties that will pay dividends to Kosovo and its European neigbors. If needed, the United States should assist Prishtina with the technical assistance necessary for improved border security and travel document integrity. And, while Kosova needs to find a way to reverse the ongoing migration of some of its citizens into EU countries, including stimulating economic growth, attracting foreign investment, and fighting corruption, visa liberalization remains critical.

There's a lot to be optimistic about in Kosova's eighth year of independence. A new government is in place. The number of countries and international organizations recognizing the independence and sovereignty of Kosova is growing. And with the recent recognition of the International Olympic Committee, the people of Kosova can look forward to rooting for their athletes at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Now is the time for Kosova's friends around the world to double-down and see to it that there will be much more to celebrate when Kosova marks a decade of independence in 2018.