Russia probes hi-tech fund with links to opposition lawmaker

MOSCOW (AFP) - Russian investigators on Friday stepped up pressure on a state-funded project championed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as the country's answer to Silicon Valley by accusing one of its senior executives of giving US$750,000 (S$926,584) to an opposition lawmaker.

The hugely powerful Investigative Committee, which reports directly to President Vladimir Putin, said it had opened a criminal probe against Alexei Beltyukov, senior vice-president of the Skolkovo Fund, claiming he "illegally" gave $750,000 of the fund's money to opposition lawmaker Ilya Ponomaryov between February 2011 and February 2012.

The criminal case comes after investigators on Thursday searched the offices of the Skolkovo Fund, which was established during the 2008-2012 presidency of Medvedev as part of his much-touted modernisation drive.

"Beltyukov tried to conceal the misappropriation of such a large amount by signing a contract with Ilya Ponomaryov on behalf of the fund," investigators said in a statement.

According to the contract, Ponomaryov was to receive $300,000 for delivering 10 lectures in several Russian cities, and another $450,000 for carrying out research work, investigators said.

They added that they were looking into the "scientific value" of Ponomaryov's research.

In February, the Investigative Committee opened a criminal case over alleged embezzlement of nearly 24 million rubles ($760,000) by several fund officials.

During his four years as president, Medvedev pushed a plan to build a high-tech hub outside Moscow where top foreign and Russian scientists could focus on nuclear, space, medicine and other sciences.

That project was put on the back burner after Putin returned to the Kremlin for a third term last May and made Medvedev his prime minister.

The Investigative Committee, Russia's equivalent of the United States' FBI, is overseeing a number of criminal probes into anti-Kremlin opposition activists as part of what critics call a clampdown on dissent.

Spokespeople for the Skolkovo Fund refused to immediately comment.

Ponomaryov on Friday called the accusations against him and the searches at the Skolkovo Fund a "provocation."

He said he had earned money by doing research work and establishing contacts with investors and scientists interested in working in Russia.

He said the attack on him was part of the ongoing tug-of-war between conservative and liberal figures.

"I think they will try to strip me of my mandate by using these charges," Ponomaryov said.

He added that his research might have saved more than $10 million, an amount he said a big consultancy would charge for a similar amount of work.

"We have saved a lot of money for the Russian state," the 37-year old deputy, who received a university degree in 2011, added separately on television.

Ponomaryov is a lawmaker with the left-leaning A Just Russia party.

His senior colleague Gennady Gudkov was expelled from parliament over allegedly conflicting business interests last year.

Gudkov and his son Dmitry were also expelled from the party last month amid a confrontation between the Kremlin-friendly parliamentary majority members and opposition-minded lawmakers.

Investigators said they were looking into the work of the Skolkovo Fund following an inquiry from ultranationalist lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whom Ponomaryov accused of unscrupulous behaviour.

Earlier Friday, Ponomaryov posted in his blog an official letter to parliament calling for a probe of Zhirinovsky, claiming he might have entered into a sham divorce to avoid declaring ownership of property attributed to his wife.

Ponomaryov's request comes after the Kremlin ordered officials to close foreign accounts in an effort to stem capital flight.

The attack on Medvedev's pet project is likely to fuel talk that Putin's protege may not serve out his term amid signs of an economic slowdown and infighting among the elites.