In a significant development for Russia’s Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC), Sber, the operator of Sberbank, has announced its participation in the digital ruble pilot program. This decision, which reflects Sber’s influential position, has been confirmed by Herman Gref, the CEO of the firm.
Sberbank, majority-owned by the Russian state and the largest bank in the country, has undergone a transformation into a major tech player in recent years. It operates diverse services such as the Okko streaming platform, Citymobil taxi service, cloud storage, and the SberSound and SberMarket music and food delivery platforms.
The Central Bank faced a setback when Sber withdrew from the initial stage of the pilot in August this year. Speculation arose that Sber might be waiting until it is legally mandated to provide digital ruble services before actively participating.
The Central Bank had previously confirmed that 16 additional banks would join the pilot in early 2024, expanding the existing group of 13. The initial group had 15 members, with Sber and its rival, Tinkoff Bank, withdrawing just before the pilot’s launch in August.
While the Central Bank is yet to release the full list of financial firms joining the pilot in 2024, Center-invest, a significant player in Russia’s Rostov and southern regions, has announced plans to offer select clients the opportunity to use digital ruble services next year.
The addition of both Center-invest and Sber to the pilot program is a positive development for the Central Bank, which is likely to follow a model similar to China’s integration of CBDC with banks. In China, the central bank initially partnered with the “big four” commercial banks during the early stages of the digital yuan pilot.
Later, regional banks, smaller niche banks, and diverse financial institutions joined the pilot. Chinese tech giants, like Tencent, have also increased their involvement in the program in recent months.
Sber holds a position in Russia akin to that of Tencent in China. Consequently, Sber may eventually aim to incorporate the digital ruble into its broader digital ecosystem, mirroring Tencent’s approach with its in-app WeChat e-CNY payment options.