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What happens after an anti-corruption victory

Shift in thought

Armenia’s protest leader, Nikol Pashinian, is now its prime minister but he wisely puts the burden on the people’s awakening to achieve reform.

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Newly elected Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinian addresses the crowd in Republic Square in Yerevan, Armenia, May 8.

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Armenia has now joined a string of other nations from South Korea to Burkina Faso where anti-corruption protests have ousted one leader and led to a new one promising clean governance. As so often happens in such revolutions, the people in Armenia are stunned at the power of their collective virtue. And they are left asking, “Now what?”

In Armenia, the revolution was led by a former journalist, Nikol Pashinyan, who not only helped bring down a corrupt leader last month through nonviolent means but was then chosen by the parliament on May 8 to become prime minister. In a speech to a crowd, he declared, “The people won.” And he congratulated them on standing up for honesty, transparency, and equality before the law.

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“There will be no privileged people in Armenia and that’s it,” he said, promising an end to an oligarch-led kleptocracy.

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Yet as corruption experts know well, turning such promises into reality requires more than government reforms or new election procedures. Reform also depends on the people sustaining that mental shift which compelled them to join others from diverse parts of society in protest.

Most Armenians had long shared an experience of paying bribes or seeing corrupt officials siphon off public money. As in many countries, they assumed politicians were in power for themselves. Now they share the discovery of fellow citizens openly embracing and demanding the practice of universal values in their leaders.

In a study last month of countries that have seen some success after anti-corruption protests, Sarah Chayes of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found many achieved a subtle but significant change in public attitudes. An acceptance of fatalism about corruption had been broken and in its place was a common desire to build systems of integrity.

But she adds, “Although protesters have shown remarkable stamina in taking to the streets night after night for weeks or months on end in order to achieve their dramatic objectives, it remains to be seen whether their staying power is sufficient to maintain focus on less emotionally satisfying legalistic reforms, and to anchor the newly articulated ethics in public expectations and official behavior.”

One essential change is to drop the anger at the ousted corrupt officials and start implementing the virtues necessary for good governance. “The page of hatred should be turned,” Mr. Pashinyan told the crowd. And in a sign of the challenges of doing that, he added: “May God help us.”

Armenia’s future after this “velvet revolution” is still unknown. The new prime minister must still face the remnants of the old ruling party in parliament and an economy dependent on oligarchs tied to Russia. If he can continue to mobilize the people and build on their shift in consciousness, Armenia might break into the ranks of least-corrupt nations.