Freedom, I couldn’t answer that question, maybe Whirly has an opinion,(smirk) :)

I have several actually.

If you can get and don’t mind converting a VEPR, not a bad way to go.
The best for some of us.

Personally, new made I’d be looking at a Bulgarian Arsenal AK.
Or if I were really feeling flush, a Krebs custom. If memory serves, he’s using the VEPR also to build off of.

I’m very fond of the old Valmet guns but the prices are terrible.

But best for the money?
Its hard to beat the Romys, you have to watch for canted front sights depending on vintage, but still while rough, they work.

I actually prefer the Hungarian AMD’s, they’re just a little less rough around the edges.

The Yugos are decent, again depending on vintage, the thick receiver models are preferred.

For a while, when parts kits were cheap and available, everyone and their brother made AKs, some good, some not so good.
I am hesitant on many “off brand” guns, as the quality is suspect.
I have an AK receiver in the back that’s got the hammer and trigger holes so wallowed out as to be unsafe.
They actually shortened the receiver and dust cover during the build, screwing it up bad. Theres a serial number but no makers mark, kinda scary.

Avoid screw build guns, the AK was not designed to be screw assembled, and these are generally garage builds, and cruddy ones at that.

Look for matching bolt and trunnion numbers, its no guarantee of good headspace, but it helps. Everything else can be a hodgepodge of parts, but when the barrel, trunnion and bolt match, your chances of getting a good gun jump.