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Russian Business Titan Sber to Join Digital Ruble Pilot

Tim Alper
Last updated: | 2 min read
The Sber logo on a Russian building.
Source: stasknop/Adobe

Russia’s Sber, the operator of Sberbank, says it will join the Central Bank’s digital ruble pilot, in a major coup for the nation’s CBDC.

Vedemosti reported that Sber’s influential CEO, the former Economy Minister Herman Gref, said his firm “will definitely” join a “second wave” of banks that will start testing the coin in 2024.

The firm is majority-owned by the Russian state and is the largest bank in the country.

It has also rebranded itself as a major tech player in recent years, operating the Okko streaming service and the taxi operator Citymobil.

It also owns a popular cloud storage service and the music and food delivery platforms SberSound and SberMarket.

The Central Bank was rocked by Sber’s eleventh-hour withdrawal from the first stage of the pilot in August this year.

Sber: A New Ally in Russian Central Bank CBDC Drive?

Some media observers had speculated that Sber could be biding its time with the CBDC.

They suggested Sber could wait until it is legally obliged to provide digital ruble services before it entered the fray.

The Central Bank has already confirmed that 16 banks will be added to the pilot early next year, joining an existing group of 13.

A branch of Sberbank in Yekaterinburg, Russia.
A branch of Sberbank in Yekaterinburg, Russia. Source: (Mitrokhina Marina [CC BY-SA 4.0])

The first group originally had 15 members, with Sber and rival Tinkoff Bank withdrawing just prior to August’s launch.

The Central Bank is yet to release the full list of financial firms that will join the pilot in 2024.

But last week, Center-invest, a major player in the Rostov and southern regions of Russia, claimed it would start offering select clients the chance to use digital ruble services next year.

The addition of both Center-invest and Sber to the pilot represents a boon for the Central Bank, which will likely follow Chinese models of CBDC bank integration.

The Chinese central bank initially partnered with the nation’s “big four” commercial banks in the early days of the digital yuan pilot.

In later stages, regional banks and smaller, niche banks joined the pilot, in addition to more diverse financial institutions.

In more recent months, Chinese tech titans like Tencent have deepened their level of involvement in the pilot.

Sber is arguably the closest thing Russia has to a Tencent equivalent.

As such, Sber could – like Tencent – later seek to adopt the digital ruble in its wider digital ecosystem, much as Tencent has sought to do with its new in-app WeChat e-CNY payment options.