* Russia has started efforts to launch own system
* Response was reaction to sanctions
* China's UnionPay, launched in 2002, is global
By Megan Davies
MOSCOW, April 4 Russia's push to develop a
domestic payment system to reduce its reliance on the West may
overcome the country's strong cash culture, but is likely to
stumble on the international stage.
Prompted by the suspension of Visa and Mastercard
services to Bank Rossiya because of Western sanctions
over Crimea, Russian officials have revived attempts to create a
national payment system.
"We certainly must do this, and we will do it," Russian
President Vladimir Putin said last week. "It is really too bad
that certain companies have decided on ... restrictions. I think
this will simply cause them to lose certain segments of the
market - a very profitable market."
After the United States imposed sanctions on officials
believed to be close to President Vladimir Putin and Rossiya
bank, which Washington said was the "personal bank" for the
leader's inner circle, Moscow has signalled a shift towards
Asian markets and told businessmen to bring their assets home.
Introducing a payments system would give Russia a reserve to
fall back on should sanctions gain teeth, reducing its reliance
on U.S. systems which have to abide by their country's rules.
"There are many domestic payment systems out there. Can
Russia do it? Piece of cake," said David Robertson, publisher of
industry publication The Nilson Report, in Carpinteria,
California. "What matters is crossing a border, whether it's
your own citizens who want to travel or vice versa."
Russia would still have to rely on international systems
such as Mastercard or Visa to process payments that cross the
border, analysts say.
Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov was quoted by
Russian news agency RIA as saying the country did not intend to
stop using Visa and Mastercard systems although a domestic
system was under consideration.
China's UnionPay, founded in 2002, took an expansionist
approach, taking advantage of a growing population's propensity
to travel to strike reciprocal arrangements with systems around
UnionPay had a 2013 market share of credit and debit
transactions worldwide of 7.7 percent, according to Nilson
Report data. That is third largest globally after Visa with 60.5
percent and Mastercard with 26.9 percent.
Among the others, American Express has 3.8 percent,
Japan's JCB has 1.1 percent and Discover Financial Services'
Diners Club has 0.1 percent, the figures showed.
China's large size made it worthwhile to launch such a
system, as with a population of over 1.3 billion there are
enough people to use it, analysts say.
Russia's population of 143 million people is rising slowly
but is not yet back up to the 148 million it reached in the
"It is one thing for India or China to do this - they have
more than one billion people. Russia has a 10th of it," said
Robertson. "You have a population with not a lot of dispensable
income (and a) cultural practice of using cash. There's a
secular migration to cards but right now it is a slog as the
country morphs into a more modern financial system."
While building a domestic system could bring potential
benefits such as lower fees and higher security, it could be a
costly and lengthy process, and it is questionable whether it
would make money, analysts say.
"It's nice to have a domestic system," said one Moscow-based
analyst who declined to be named. "But it has limitations for
international payments. There would be substantial capital
expenditure to create a domestic processing system and it would
probably not be a matter of months but years."
Russia's biggest bank, Sberbank, previously tried
to develop its Sberkart payment system but dropped the plan in
2010 to develop PRO100 credit cards, as shareholders determined
there was not much chance of Sberkart succeeding on a national
basis, according to a report in trade publication Cardline at
Sberbank could not be reached for comment on why the card
"The project of a national payment system (was) under way a
long time ago and was frozen," said another Moscow-based analyst
who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"Currently, regulators and banks are receiving some push
from above regardless of the economic justification."
Sberbank is back at the centre of the revived plan. CEO
German Gref told Putin at a meeting last week that it was
working with other banks on establishing a local hosting system
that will link the different banks' payment systems.
Once amendments to the law are passed to enable the system
to be created, it will take two to six months to organise the
centres that will provide payment, clearing and processing
services, according to the Kremlin's website.
Gref said a processing centre had already been established
and a Russian-made chip has been developed and certified.
Sberbank plans to eventually give up its control over the
project and invite all interested banks to join.
Russian ID system Universal Electronic Card, in which
Sberbank is a shareholder, said the payment system PRO100 which
was launched in 2012 is "technologically ready to provide
national processing in the near future".
A working group under the supervision of the Russian Central
Bank has been created and will examine the advantages of
launching the national payment system on the basis of PRO100, a
"Payment cards are not rocket science," said Robertson. "The
(Reporting by Megan Davies; Editing by Giles Elgood)