Whether in the form of kickbacks, bribery of public officials, embezzlement, or tax evasion, political and public sector corruption has become increasingly entrenched in the past year, and has fueled an angry backlash, according to Transparency International.
Based on surveys of business leaders and risk analysts, the index by the anticorruption watchdog tracks perceived levels of corruption in 182 nations and assigns values from 0 to 10, with 0 representing the highest levels of perceived corruption and 10 the least.
Miklos Marschall, the deputy managing director of Transparency International, says that, overall, the countries that have struggled most with corruption in recent years are showing no signs of improvement.
"It is alarming that the countries that perform at least above 5 are not increasing," Marschall says. "Countries that score below 5 -- of course, there are differences -- but you can say that corruption is so endemic that that is almost the system. So it's not a deviation from the system, it is the system."
In other words, this year's index -- which reflects data gathered between December 2009 and September 2011 -- doesn't look all that different from the last index.
'People Are Losing Patience'
The stagnation of certain nations toward the bottom of the list, says Marschall, underpins the kind of public anger that boiled over this year in the Middle East and North Africa.
"We all have the images of the Arab Spring -- Tunisia, Egypt, a street vendor setting himself on fire in desperation because of corruption. So while you don't see dramatic changes in the rankings, people are losing patience," he says.
That, Marschall says, "should send an important message to some governments in Central Asia and some other places that corruption can lead to regime changes."
Indeed, the countries of Central Asia rank at the bottom of the list, with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan being the worst offenders in the region. They are tied for 177th place.
"The really, I would say, dark situation [is] in countries like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where there is hardly any accountability whatsoever. The governing elites have practically no accountability," he says. "There is no political opposition. There is no civil society. There is no free press. So these are basically almost closed societies, and that's why there is no improvement."
The only countries faring worse are Burma, North Korea, Somalia, and Afghanistan -- the latter a country that Transparency International says exemplifies the rule that corruption is, in essence, a response to failing institutions.
Russia comes in 143rd place, tied with Belarus and Uganda.
Russia's Alarmingly Low Ranking
Those pervasive perceptions of corruption, says Marschall, won't help Moscow in its current efforts to attract increased Western investment.
There has been a lot of talk about reforms [in Russia], but we don't see too much impact."
"This is one of the world's economic powers and Russia's very low ranking is alarming," he says. "I think it is something that the Russian leadership should take much more seriously. There has been a lot of talk about reforms, but we don't see too much impact. The rhetoric is more intensive than the actual reforms."
The better performers in Eastern Europe include the countries of the western Balkans, where the prospect of EU membership has incentivized the tackling of corruption. Croatia, which is expected to join the bloc in 2013, has the lowest perceived corruption in its neighborhood.
This year's index also points to improvements in Georgia, citing reforms that have dented day-to-day petty corruption, while the country still remains far behind most Western nations.
However, while most EU states rank among the least corrupt, Greece and Italy -- two states currently in the throes of sovereign debt crises -- fare worse.
They rank with Romania and Bulgaria as having the highest perceived corruption in the region.
Perennial high-achievers again topped this year's list, including all Scandinavian countries and New Zealand, which took the No. 1 slot.
Other notable countries include the United States in 24th place, Turkey in 61st, China in 75th, and Iran in 120th.