By Douglas Busvine
MOSCOW (Reuters) - A leading economist who fled Russia after being questioned by state investigators said on Friday he had left because he preferred freedom to living in fear, but that President Vladimir Putin was not to blame.
Sergei Guriev, head of Moscow's New Economic School, left Russia this month after being questioned in an investigation into defunct oil firm Yukos, whose founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Putin critic, was jailed in 2005 for fraud.
His abrupt departure raised fears of a widening clampdown on groups and individuals critical or independent of Putin, who has turned to more hardline advisers to quell protests calling for his ouster that began in December 2011.
"I just have a personal preference for freedom. My family also deserves to have no fear for me," said Guriev, who is well-known to Western investors and is a widely-cited commentator.
Guriev, 41, said via email he had decided to join his wife and children in Paris, where she is an economist.
He said he had been questioned about a report he co-authored in 2011 that criticized the prosecution of Khodorkovsky. The report was written for a Kremlin human rights body under then President Dmitry Medvedev, whose relatively liberal supporters have also come under fire.
Guriev's lawyer, Ruslan Kozhura, said Guriev's office was searched in April by police who seized documents and electronic correspondence. This has raised questions over whether the economist was at risk of becoming a suspect in the case.
"This really touches upon his constitutional right to correspondence, and is, of course, psychologically unpleasant," Kozhura said.
Supporters say Guriev, a former visiting professor at the U.S. university of Princeton, had paid the price for publicly backing Alexei Navalny, a leader of the protests against Putin's election in March 2012 for a third term.
But Guriev said: "I do not blame Medvedev or Putin for anything."
Guriev said he had received support from the benefactors of the New Economic School, which includes prominent business figures banker Pyotr Aven, industrialist Viktor Vekselberg and tycoon-turned-politician Mikhail Prokhorov.
"I have heard words of sympathy and actions of support from many outstanding people, for which I am really grateful," said Guriev, who is taking up a position as a visiting professor at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris.
News of Guriev's flight broke earlier this week, when state-controlled Sberbank said he had asked for his candidacy to be withdrawn from an election to the board of directors of Russia's largest bank.
But Guriev's name could not be struck off the slate in time for Sberbank's annual shareholders meeting on Friday. He was elected in absentia with the largest number of votes, reflecting strong sympathy in Russia's financial establishment.
"He was very efficient, a great professional, very honest and uncompromising," Sberbank CEO German Gref told reporters. "Things happen and I'm hopeful that he can return."
Some senior officials, though, have heaped scorn on Guriev.
"I don't know of any political reasons that might have compelled Sergei to take such a step," said Economy Minister Andrei Belousov, tipped to become Putin's top economic adviser.
Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev are due to be released from jail next year, and the intensification of activity by Russian investigators has stoked speculation that a new case could be brought to keep them behind bars.
While the grounds for a further prosecution are unclear, the issue has become a test of establishment loyalty to Putin, whose coterie of security service alumni has been in the ascendant since his return to the Kremlin a year ago.
The New Economic School has come under official scrutiny over its funding, and Guriev confirmed that it had received a donation from Khodorkovsky, who was arrested in October of 2003.
This was while Guriev was away on a sabbatical at Princeton and was not drawing a salary in Moscow. "The amount of money was $50,000 - about 3 percent of the NES annual budget at that point," he said.
No further donations were received from Khodorkovsky, Yukos or his bank Menatep after Guriev took the helm in 2004.
Guriev's resignation as rector of the NES has been accepted, with Stanislav Anatolyev appointed as his interim replacement.
(Additional reporting by Darya Korsunskaya, Lidia Kelly and Megan Davies; Editing by Elizabeth Piper and Alistair Lyon)