The group's "Global Corruption Report" includes a Top 10 list of the worst offenders and the public funds they have allegedly embezzled over the last 20 years. Most of them are from Asia, Africa, and Latin America -- with Mohamed Suharto, the former president of Indonesia, at the top. He's alleged to have siphoned off up to $35 billion.
Two Eastern Europeans make the Top 10 -- former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and Pavlo Lazarenko, a former Ukrainian prime minister.
"While we can score some progress in terms of daily corruption in the sense that in some countries, this petty corruption -- bribes paid to road police and so on -- has somewhat been diminished in Central European countries, the grand corruption schemes and most importantly political corruption has been on the rise, and that is a very negative trend in the transition economies," Marschall said.
The Transparency report shows how corruption in politics directly affects ordinary people. It deprives them of public services like health care and education. And it can also foster the despair that leads to conflict and violence.
Transparency also notes what it says is a worrying trend in Europe -- the extension of immunity privileges for political leaders. Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan, and a handful of Western European countries, are planning or have existing legislation that could be used to shield high political officeholders from prosecution for corruption.
On the plus side, several countries in the region have recently approved anticorruption laws or bodies, like Kyrgyzstan, or approved legislation that requires greater disclosure of political donations.
But Marschall says anticorruption agencies must be independent to be effective.
"Too often they serve as a kind of 'window dressing,' and what you have seen is lip service. In reality, not much happens. So there is one very easy test about these anticorruption bureaus or centers. If they respond to the executive and not the parliament, you can forget it. An anticorruption bureau has to be absolutely independent and well-resourced, and if it is not the case it will be part of the overall government propaganda. I think that is a general problem in every Eastern and Central European country -- that the special anticorruption bodies report to the executive, and they become very quickly partisan and find violations always in the other political camp, not in their own political camp," Marschall said.
The cost of political corruption is also highlighted in another report out this week, by Global Witness, a U.K.-based advocacy group. It says crooked officials have condemned many oil- and mineral-rich countries to poverty and political instability.
And it says secrecy about revenues paid to governments by oil and mining companies has abetted the disappearance of these vast sums of cash.
The report -- titled "Time For Transparency" -- looks at five countries, including Kazakhstan. There, top officials face accusations of illegal payments from Western oil companies, as well as questions over hundreds of millions of dollars the government is holding in foreign bank accounts, ostensibly for the interests of the country.
Gavin Hayman of Global Witness says the Kazakh case is particularly disturbing because of the size of the revenues allegedly involved. But he says the problem is repeated around the world.
"There's no transparency over what the companies pay to the government, and there's no transparency from the government's side on what they receive from the companies. That means that huge amounts of revenue, which are often the major source of revenue for countries like Kazakhstan, are subject to almost no oversight, and no accountability about their management. That means that the citizens of countries like Kazakhstan have no information to call their governments to account over the management of those revenues. The end result is a lot of it is simply parked offshore in Switzerland," Hayman said.
That's why Hayman's group wants oil companies to be required to publish what they pay to governments. Currently, such disclosures are voluntary. That's not enough, Hayman says -- anyone who's got something to hide is not going to disclose any information.
Transparency International also has ideas about how to prevent the plunder. It's set out standards that include conflict-of-interest legislation and the independent monitoring of party income and expenditures.
Marschall says the new United Nations Convention Against Corruption adopted late last year should also help, once it comes into force.
"[Until now,] the other severe problem was the complete lack of international mechanisms to follow the track of the money and try to get back some of these assets. That's why one of the [pieces of] good news is that, according to the new UN anticorruption convention, there will be international legal mechanisms to get back some of the money stolen by some of these corrupt politicians," Marschall said.
Still, as Marschall notes, conventions are only as strong as their implementation. And that, in large part, will be up to the politicians themselves.
(More about the reports can be found at www.transparency.org, www.globalcorruptionreport.org and www.globalwitness.org.)