MOSCOW, May 20 (RIA Novosti) - The president of Russia's Skolkovo Foundation, billionaire businessman Viktor Vekselberg has been questioned by the Investigative Committee over an alleged misuse of funds to support the opposition, the foundation’s deputy head Alexander Chernov said on Monday.
“Viktor Feliksovich [Vekselberg] provided exhaustive answers to the questions he was asked,” Chernov said.
Vekselberg denied allegations on Wednesday that the foundation funded the political opposition.
Russian investigators have opened a criminal case against the Skolkovo Foundation’s vice president, Alexei Beltyukov, on suspicion he embezzled $750,000 that he allegedly paid to Ilya Ponomaryov, a member of A Just Russia, between February 2011 and February 2012 for a series of lectures and research projects.
Ponomaryov was paid $300,000 to deliver 10 lectures in various Russian cities, and another $450,000 for scientific and research work, the Investigative Committee said earlier this month. Investigators said they were looking into the deal to check how much of the work Ponomaryov has fulfilled.
Beltyukov has denied the allegations, saying the foundation hired and paid Ponomaryov legally, while Ponomaryov has dismissed the case as “politically motivated.”
Ponomaryov said on Monday he believes his fellow party members would oppose a move to strip him of parliamentary immunity if the Investigative Committee files such a request.
“I am sure that [they] will not support the request to deprive [me] of immunity. Just how strongly, will depend on the materials that the Investigative Committee sends to the State Duma,” Ponomaryov told RIA Novosti.
He added, however, that he was prepared for any scenario.
“In our country you should be prepared for anything,” he said.
Later in the day, Sergei Zheleznyak, the deputy head of the A Just Russia faction, said the party would be ready to back a request to lift Ponomaryov's immunity from the Investigative Committee.
“Of course we will grant the investigation all the powers it asks for,” he said, adding, however, that the committee has to provide substantial evidence first.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), said on Monday his party will also support the move to strip Ponomaryov of immunity.
State Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin said the lower house of parliament will consider the Prosecutor General’s Office request to divest Ponomaryov of immunity as soon as it arrives.
“The State Duma has no other option but to act in accordance with the standing regulations,” he said, adding that no request has been presented yet.
Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin told the Izvestia daily last week a criminal case will be opened against Ponomaryov on embezzlement charges. Investigators questioned Ponomaryov as a witness on May 16.
Vekselberg said in late April the Skolkovo Foundation was suing Ponomaryov, who supported last year’s anti-Kremlin protests, but did not specify why it was doing so.
The Investigative Committee has also said it is examining information from the Federal Security Service (FSB) indicating that 3.5 billion rubles ($111 million) in federal funds provided to Skolkovo stayed parked in a bank account for a long period of time.
Ponomaryov suggested the series of allegations indicate two ongoing campaigns, “on the one hand against the opposition and on the other hand against the modernization of the economy.” He did not say who might be instigating this.
The Skolkovo Foundation which manages the eponymous high-tech hub, is a pet project of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and was opened during his presidency in 2010. Often called Russia’s “Silicon Valley,” it was intended to lead the country’s drive to diversify and modernize the economy and increase the output of high-tech products.