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[Leonid Bershidsky] Want less graft? Allow more freedom.

Transparency International, the Berlin-based global authority on graft, accompanied its Corruption Perceptions Index for 2018 with a warning that corruption gains where authoritarian and populist leaders erode democratic institutions. A comparison of Transparency’s data with studies by Freedom House, which scores countries on the state of democracy and liberty, reveals a more complex story but leads to the same conclusion.

Putting the two organizations’ country scores side by side shows that the two metrics track pretty closely. Both have a 100-point scale; for Transparency, 100 means absolutely clean, and for Freedom House, 100 is a perfect democracy with absolute respect for civil rights. In the five years between 2014 and 2018, the correlation between the two scores was stable, and high, at 0.71-0.72.

The recently published 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that throughout the world, only a small minority of both the general public and the most informed individuals believes “the system,” their societies’ institutions, works for them; a far bigger percentage say the establishment is failing them. The high correlation between the Freedom House and Transparency scores is evidence, however, that people clearly feel “the system” is less corrupt in countries with a stronger democracy.

In some cases, there is also a high correlation between countries’ evolution on both scales -- democracy and corruption perceptions -- over time. Hungary, for example, has followed a regrettable trajectory of slow decline in democracy and increase in perceived corruption (correlation 0.88).

Brazil has been going down the same path, but more slowly (correlation 0.83).

Turkey (correlation 0.7) and Zimbabwe (correlation 0.87) are two more examples of shrinking freedoms leading to higher corruption perceptions. And, under President Donald Trump, the US is showing a higher correlation, 0.55, than might be expected, as its democracy index falters.

This may not mean the US is actually becoming more corrupt. Trump’s promises to do away with elite corruption and “drain the swamp,” and his opponents’ belief that Trump himself is corrupt probably have drawn so much attention to the issue that everybody has an opinion about it. In this case, perceptions, at least for now, are getting ahead of reality and signaling a strong desire for change rather than a sorry state of affairs.

Besides the failures, the data point to some success stories, including a few surprising ones. My favorite is Belarus (correlation 0.97), where the dictator Alexander Lukashenko has been gradually softening his regime since Russia invaded Ukraine: For him, being in Russia’s orbit is losing its luster and cooperation with the West looks increasingly appealing. As the screws of the repressive state are loosened, Belarussians perceive less corruption.

Other, though weaker examples of progress on both fronts include Pakistan (correlation 0.69) and Kosovo (correlation 0.65).

There is, however, a group of countries where Freedom House and Transparency scores move in opposite directions. China (correlation -0.49), has, for example, grown less democratic but cleaner in the last six years -- showing, perhaps, that the Chinese technology-based method of increasing trust can work for a while even as society becomes less free.

Russia (correlation -0.58) is a somewhat different story: As it slid steadily toward more authoritarianism, its already dismal corruption level has failed to improve but could hardly worsen much.

Of course, watching the correlations over a relatively short time span and disregarding other possible factors that could affect them isn’t a scientific method. Intuitively, however, the math fits the course of events in many countries and shows policy makers the direction they should move if they want people to perceive the state as less corrupt.

Leonid Bershidsky
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist. -- Ed.