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Russia tasks tycoon Vekselberg with modernisation drive

by Staff Writers
Moscow (AFP) March 23, 2010
The Kremlin said Tuesday it had appointed billionaire Viktor Vekselberg to develop Russia's answer to Silicon Valley, the flagship project in its drive to wean the country's economy off oil and gas.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is seeking to build a high-tech hub near Moscow that would focus on developing several priority sectors, including nuclear energy, IT and telecoms.

"I have made a decision that the Russian part of this coordinating structure which we will create will be headed by Viktor Feliksovich Vekselberg," Medvedev said at a meeting in the northern town of Khanty-Mansiisk.

With a net worth of 6.4 billion dollars, according to Forbes magazine's most recent ranking, Vekselberg is one of Russia's top billionaires with interests ranging from energy to metals and electronics.

The establishment of the high-tech hub near Russia's new business school of Skolkovo just outside Moscow is the Kremlin's new pet project following Medvedev's pledges to create a knowledge-based economy.

Overseen by the Kremlin's top ideologue Vladislav Surkov, the project's main aim is to entice leading Russian and foreign scientists to the hub where they could focus their energies on sectors such as IT, nuclear and bio-medical technologies, energy and telecommunications.

Many critics however have ridiculed the Kremlin's idea, saying rampant corruption, bureaucracy and the lack of political freedoms will stifle creativity.

But Vekselberg told reporters he was optimistic about the project.

"I believe in this, if I did not then I would not take it up," news agencies quoted Vekselberg as saying in Khanty-Mansiisk. "It's a challenge of sorts."

He said he would head the high-tech centre, considered Russia's answer to California's Silicon Valley, alongside a foreign co-director and a list of potential candidates would be drawn up within the next six weeks.

"There is an understanding that we would like to see an authoritative figure with experience in commercialising innovations in this post," Vekselberg was quoted as saying.

At the meeting, Medvedev reiterated his call to give the high-tech hub priority attention.

"The new technologies which we are creating are not toys for eggheads," he said in the televised meeting.

Medvedev's push to develop high-tech came after the global economic crisis hit the country hard, with analysts saying Russia was paying the price for failing to reform its hydrocarbon-reliant economy during the boom years.

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