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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sberbank Joins Credit Card Race

Catching up with a decades-old trend, Sberbank announced with little fanfare Tuesday that it would release its first credit cards by the end of the year.

The pilot program of some 10,000 cards will be available only to clients who already have Sberbank debit cards, which the bank has offered since the 1990s, according to Interfax.

Although it is the unrivaled leader in Russian retail banking, Sberbank is far from being the first bank to offer credit-card services.

Russky Standart has issued more than 1 million cards, and Alfa Bank analyst Natalya Orlova said credit cards had been a trend among smaller Russian banks since summer 2005.

Orlova estimated the value of the credit-card market in Russia at around $1 billion, but she could only guess as to why Sberbank had not been vying for a piece of the pie.

"It's Sberbank's problem that they did not participate in this market," Orlova said. "For some reason they just didn't show interest in it."

Sberbank recently moved a number of experts into its card-services department, and Orlova said they might have urged the bank to move in on this market.

But the pace of the move, if it is realized, seems cautious at best. Since roughly 2 million credit cards are circulating in the country, Sberbank's pilot series would be a drop in the bucket, less than one card per branch.

Still, the involvement of Russia's banking Goliath is a significant step for the country's credit-card market, signaling that purchases with plastic are finally gaining ground, Orlova said.

A Sberbank spokesman said Tuesday that he could not comment on the project. Alexander Golovanov, head of public relations, did not immediately respond to questions.