By Timothy Heritage
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian police on Thursday searched the Moscow offices of the Skolkovo Foundation, a hi-tech project promoted by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as an answer to Silicon Valley.
The raid is likely to deepen speculation that Medvedev has fallen out of favor with President Vladimir Putin, who threatened this week to sack senior officials in a leaked video widely seen as a warning to his long-time ally.
Skolkovo was set up in 2010, when Medvedev was president, to help incubate innovative companies in high-tech industries to try to help diversify the oil and gas-dependent Russian economy.
Federal investigators said the search of the foundation's central Moscow offices was part of an investigation into the suspected embezzlement of state funds at Skolkovo, which is headed by Viktor Vekselberg, one of Russia's richest men.
Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov, a former Kremlin aide, backed the Skolkovo Foundation's leadership and condemned what he said were efforts to politicize the investigation.
"I consider it necessary to note that certain forces are trying to politicize the recent events involving the innovation centre (Skolkovo) and spread information intended to discredit the project as a whole," he said. "This is unacceptable."
While Skolkovo has won backing from more than 20 global high-tech giants such as Microsoft and Cisco, many observers say that a broader state-led drive to diversify the economy is delivering poor results.
SPECULATION OF A RIFT
The opening of such an investigation in Russia would typically, but not necessarily, precede the filing of criminal charges. The Federal Investigative Committee which is leading the investigation reports directly to Putin.
Although Medvedev and Putin have long been allies, there has been talk of a rift between them for much of the time since they swapped jobs last May, when Putin returned to the presidency after four years as prime minister.
Some political analysts say Putin could make Medvedev, 47, a scapegoat if Russia's economy continues to decline.
Leaked video footage on Wednesday showed Putin threatening to sack unnamed senior officials over a failure to implement his social spending plans - for which responsibility ultimately lies with Medvedev's government.
Putin, 60, had just told the cameras to stop rolling at a meeting with regional officials and government ministers, and his angry, unguarded remarks revived the speculation that he has lost confidence in Medvedev.
Medvedev also faced criticism in parliament on Wednesday after he delivered a report on his government's performance, with one party threatening a no-confidence vote if Russia slides into recession.
A professionally produced video by an anonymous filmmaker, posted on YouTube earlier this year, used archive footage and apparently recent interviews to present Medvedev as weak and ready to surrender Russian interests to a conniving United States.
Some political analysts say Putin has a record of loyalty to his long-standing allies and that he would remove Medvedev only reluctantly. A significant change of policy would be unlikely as this is dictated by Putin.
(Reporting By Timothy Heritage; Editing by Angus MacSwan)