Transparency International (TI) says in an annual report that the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted "widespread corruption" in countries across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where it says "corrupt and authoritarian" leaders have reduced oversight of government spending and curtailed civil liberties.
Some political leaders in the region "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," the Berlin-based corruption watchdog said in its 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), published on January 28.
As a result, the report added, transparency of foreign-aid spending has decreased, "making it difficult to track funds and ensure appropriate distribution to the intended recipients."
The CPI ranks 180 countries and territories by their perceived levels of public-sector corruption, based on 13 expert assessments and surveys of business executives. The lower the number on its 0-100 scale, the more corrupt a country is perceived to be.
TI said that countries performing well on the CPI "invest more in health care, are better able to provide universal health coverage, and are less likely to violate democratic norms and institutions or the rule of law."
But persistent corruption has undermined health-care systems in many countries and contributed to "democratic backsliding" amid the coronavirus pandemic.
"COVID-19 is not just a health and economic crisis. It is a corruption crisis. And one that we are currently failing to manage," TI Chairwoman Delia Ferreira Rubio said.
"The past year has tested governments like no other in memory, and those with higher levels of corruption have been less able to meet the challenge," Rubio said, adding that even countries at the top of the index "must urgently address their role in perpetuating corruption at home and abroad."
Denmark and New Zealand retained their places at the top of the CPI, followed by Singapore and seven Western and Northern European countries.
Eastern Europe and Central Asia remained the second-lowest performing regions in the ranking, with an average score of 36.
Georgia (56), Armenia (49), Belarus (47), and Montenegro (45) scored above the global average of 43, while Uzbekistan (26), Tajikistan (25), and Turkmenistan (19) ranked at the bottom of the region.
Belarus, where the authorities have cracked down on mass protests triggered by a contested presidential election in August, has jumped 16 points since 2012.
Corruption remains a problem in the country, where "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," TI said.
Kyrgyzstan (31) jumped seven points since 2012, but the watchdog said that "widespread corruption and a lack of transparency and accountability have undermined an adequate response to COVID-19."
Bosnia-Herzegovina (35) dropped seven points over the same period, with the Balkan country experiencing "numerous violations" of human and labor rights during the pandemic, as well as "discrimination in economic aid distribution and alleged unlawful procurement of medical equipment."
Serbia (38), which earned its lowest score on the CPI in nine years, faced "serious rule-of law issues, continued democratic erosion, and efforts to silence critical voices."
TI cited several controversial steps taken by the government in response to COVID-19, including suspending parliament, implementing extensive curfews, and "inciting violence against protesters."
The government also "restricted access to information on the procurement of medical equipment, and retaliated against health-care workers who criticized its response to the public health crisis."
Kazakhstan also scored 38, Kosovo 36, North Macedonia 35, Moldova 34, and Ukraine 33.
Azerbaijan and Russia were ranked 129th, each with a score of 30.
With a score of 44, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania were well below the average regional score of 66 and remained the lowest performers from the Western Europe and European Union region.
Afghanistan (19) came last in RFE/RL's broadcast region despite jumping 11 points since 2012.
Afghanistan "instituted significant legal and institutional reforms and recently announced plans to establish a new anti-corruption commission," TI noted.
Pakistan ranked 124th with a score of 31, while Iran scored 25, putting the country in 149th place.