With an average score of 36, Eastern Europe and Central Asia is the second-lowest performing region on the CPI and vulnerable to corruption compounded by COVID-19.
Georgia (56), Armenia (49) and Belarus (47) lead the region, while Uzbekistan (26), Tajikistan (25) and Turkmenistan (19) bring up the rear.
COVID-19 corruption challenges
Across the region, COVID-19 exposed ongoing governance and structural problems, highlighted widespread corruption, and exacerbated social discontent.
Some political leaders used the crisis to increase their power, add restrictions to already limited access to information, eliminate transparency requirements from public procurement rules and renounce public accountability mechanisms.
COVID-19 provided corrupt and authoritarian leaders with an excuse to reduce oversight of government spending and curtail civil liberties. These efforts decreased transparency of foreign aid spending, making it difficult to track funds and ensure appropriate distribution to the intended recipients.
Research shows corruption undermines democratic rights and institutions, such as freedom of speech, access to information and an independent judiciary, and limits citizens’ ability to hold their governments accountable.
The opacity in the COVID-19 response across the region highlights the importance of checks and balances and a strong integrity system.
With a score of 49, Armenia is a significant improver on the CPI, rising 15 points since 2012. A country to watch last year, Armenia has taken a gradual approach to reform, resulting in steady and positive improvements in anti-corruption.
However, safeguarding judicial independence and ensuring checks and balances remain critical first steps in its anti-corruption efforts. The effectiveness of those efforts is additionally challenged by the current political and economic crisis as a result of a recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the subsequent protests against Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan over a ceasefire deal.
With a score of 31, Kyrgyzstan is a significant improver, jumping seven points since 2012. However, widespread corruption and a lack of transparency and accountability have undermined an adequate response to COVID-19.
While foreign aid, loans and donations from citizens were given to support relief efforts, there is very little information on government spending. Violent protests erupted in the country and parliamentary elections were annulled due to widespread political corruption involving allegations of mass vote buying and the use of alternative administrative resources.
Countries in the Western Balkans, including Montenegro (45), Albania (36), Kosovo (36) and North Macedonia (35), are also struggling with anti-corruption efforts, despite aspirations towards EU membership.
With a score of 35, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a significant decliner in the region, dropping seven points since 2012. During the pandemic, the country experienced numerous violations of human and labour rights, as well as discrimination in economic aid distribution and alleged unlawful procurement of medical equipment.
According to the Global Competitiveness Index, Serbia (38), Bosnia and Herzegovina (35), and Northern Macedonia (35) are among the top ten countries with highest brain drain globally, with medical professionals leaving the region in search of better opportunities.
Countries to watch
With this year’s one-point drop, Serbia (38) earns its lowest score on the CPI since 2012. The country’s biggest corruption challenges include serious rule-of-law issues, continued democratic erosion and efforts to silence critical voices.
In response to COVID-19, Serbia took several controversial steps, including suspending Parliament, implementing extensive curfews and inciting violence against protesters.
In addition, the police arrested and detained an investigative journalist, while the government restricted access to information on the procurement of medical equipment, and retaliated against health care workers who criticised its response to the public health crisis.
After years of neglect, the country’s health system was tested by COVID-19, with dire consequences. Corruption remains an obstacle to medical specialisation and career advancement.
With a score of 47, Belarus is a significant improver on the CPI, jumping 16 points since 2012. However, in 2020, weekly citizen protests began against the contested presidential election results, with national and international onlookers sounding alarms about police violence and ill-treatment of citizens.
Grand corruption remains a problem in Belarus, where it is concentrated within the highest levels of government. For years, the president’s office has exercised authoritative power with little to no legislative or judicial checks and balances, while the economy has mostly been controlled by the state.
In 2019, the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body, known as the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO), publicly declared Belarus as “non-compliant" for failing to address the vast majority of necessary anti-corruption reforms and recommendations.
In 2020, mass protests and police brutality rocked Belarus, which continues to struggle with grand corruption and state capture. (Image: Shutterstock / Ruslan Kalnitsky)
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