Hungary and Poland - feared to be building an "illiberal axis" in Central Europe - both received harsh criticism in the 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index released by Transparency International (TI) on January 27. Meanwhile, the Czech Republic - traditionally a laggard in the Visegrad region - accelerated up the ranking, but neighboring Slovakia is now stuck at the bottom of the pile, despite also advancing. None of the Central European states can compete with Baltic peer Estonia, however.
Hungary was the only Visegrad state to fail to improve its ranking in the 2015 index. The country fell three places to joint 50th out of 168 countries worldwide. In the 2014 edition, when 175 countries were surveyed, Hungary was placed 47th, but the country now sits at the foot of the Visegrad table alongside Slovakia.
That leaves the country sitting well below both Poland at 30th place and the Czech Republic (37th). However, Poland - where the new Law and Justice (PiS) government is busy implementing many similar policies to those pursued in Budapest in recent years - joined Hungary in drawing the ire of Transparency International's analysis. That was despite an improvement in Poland's score in the index for a fourth consecutive year, as the country moved up five spots to 30th position.
TI warns of worrying political developments that are likely to damage the country’s performance. PiS has drawn sharp criticism for its efforts to consolidate power since entering government in November, which include moves to take a firm grip of the constitutional court and state media.
Transparency International says the marked deterioration in countries including Hungary, Macedonia, Spain and Turkey is worrying. “These are places where there was once hope for positive change. Now we’re seeing corruption grow, while civil society space and democracy shrinks,” the report reads.
In low-scoring European countries, such as Hungary and Poland, “politicians and their cronies are increasingly hijacking state institutions to shore up power”, says Anne Koch, Tl's Europe director, in the report.
She was even harsher on Budapest and Warsaw in comments to Euractiv. In Hungary it is not just state and executive power that is affected, but also freedom of the press, the justice system and civil society, she said.
“The Hungarian government has been responsible for fatal setbacks and has leveraged power away from forces which are in place to monitor politicians and put a stop to corruption in the public sector,” she said.
As many in Brussels and elsewhere argue, the NGO official clearly sees worrying parallels between Poland and Hungary. "Political developments in the country are a sad setback for Poland," Koch continued. "Previous governments, admittedly, already exploited the media. But, recent laws are a complete turnaround."
TI was not the only watchdog to growl at PiS on January 27. US government backed Freedom House was also withering in its Freedom in the World 2016 report released the same day.
"The initial actions of the Law and Justice government in 2015, including attempts to stack key institutions with partisan loyalists, raise serious concerns about Poland’s trajectory," the report frets.
While also retaining its "free" status, Hungary too got a kicking from the lobbyist. The country received a downward trend arrow in the report due to "laws, policies, and practices that sharply curtailed the ability of refugees to seek asylum in the country, the ongoing deterioration of the media environment, and the effects of large-scale government corruption on commercial activity and competition."
By way of contrast, the Czech Republic had the biggest improvement in the region, moving up an impressive 16 spots to sit 37th in the 2015 ranking between Spain and South Korea. The report suggests the country has gathered no little momentum, having gained four places in the 2014 index after more than 15 years of deterioration.
Yet despite pushing above both Hungary and Slovakia this year, the Czechs remain towards the back of the EU ranking at 22nd. TI also appears somewhat sceptical.
"Some scores have improved significantly in recent years – most notably Greece, but also Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia and the UK – but again the picture’s complex and it remains to be seen how much this is due to genuine reform," the report reads. "Corruption remains a huge challenge across the region, often going hand-in-hand with repression."
Slovakia also improved its ranking in this year's index, climbimg four notches to 50th - a place it shares with Hungary, Croatia and Bahrain. At the same time, alongside Hungary, it remains the lowest ranked of the 10 EU states that joined the EU in 2004.
That reflects the fact that corruption, especially in the healthcare system, remains a major issue.
The parliamentary speaker - and second top official in the ruling Smer party - and health minister were forced to resign in 2014 following a scandal related to a shady tender at a provincial hospital. The current minister has faced two no-confidence votes brought by the opposition, which accuses him of failing to reduce corruption and increase transparency.
In a bid to reduce corruption in the sector, the government in Bratislava has proposed new measures, including the installation of anti-corruption hotlines in state-owned hospitals that would allow patients to report complaints to the authorities and mandatory anti-corruption courses for heath sector workers.
Estonia remains the undisputed champion of the Central and Eastern European region in the TI index, as it climbed three spots in the 2015 edition to 23rd globally on 70 points out of 100. Lithuania and Latvia both also had improvements, but remain middle runners. The former gained seven places to finish 32nd; the latter three spots to 40th.
However, the NGO appears less than impressed with the Baltic region's pace of progress towards the standards set in neighboring Scandinavia, which as ever occupy the upper echelons of the ranking. "Estonia is standing still and unfortunately there are no signs of moving toward northern Europe which is less stained from corruption," Erkka Jaakkola, head of the board of Transparency International Estonia, told Leta.
"Experts note that politicians and public servants should better report to society, and that some of the laws do not work," Sergejus Muravjovas, the head of TI’s Lithuanian office said. "We should make lobbyism operations more transparent and once and for all make major improvements to the quality of the services offered by the public sector."
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