Kostyantyn Saliy, President of the Pan-Ukrainian Association of Building Materials Manufacturers
Domestically made building materials should make up the prime resource for Ukrainian reconstruction
07.06.2024 19:16

According to various assessments, the purchase of construction materials for post-war reconstruction and rebuilding programs will cost an amount ranging between USD 65 billion to more than 100 billion. This disparity in cost estimates comes, in particular, from the lack of verified data on actual losses Ukrainian infrastructure and housing stock suffered as a result of Russia’s war of aggression, along with the lack of accurate and complete accounting of destroyed and damaged properties, says Kostyantyn Saliy, the Prsident of the Pan-Ukrainian Association of Building Materials Manufacturers. This is due to both objective factors (it is physically impossible to find out the scope of destruction in the currently occupied part of Ukraine and in near-the-front-line areas), and subjective factors - the lack of an effective system for professional assessment of the damage caused.

At the same time, whatever the real needs might be, it emerges that that the industry's pre-war capacities – much less its current capacities - will not suffice to tackle the reconstruction and rebuilding task. Ukrinform talked to Kostyantyn Saliy to find out how to get the building materailas industry prepared for the anticipated surge in demand for its products in the post-war period.

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ON PROFESSIONAL ASSESSMENTS AND FAIR CALCULATIONS

- Mr. Kostyantyn, politicians, officials and experts give differing estimates of the cost of Ukraine’s post war reconstruction and rebuilding. Estimates differ almost two-fold. Did you do your own calculations?

- First and foremost, I would like to note that the information services market is currently saturated with opinions of pseudo-experts who publish figures taken off the top of their heads without giving scientific or practical justification. Currently, there is no valid state system that would count not only the number of lost square meters, but the amount of building materials as well. No one can give an explicit answer to the question of how much roofing materials, ceramic bricks, gas blocks or commercial concrete have been lost. Without this data, any of the figures given can be challenged.

Unfortunately, the State Agency for Reconstruction and Infrastructure Development is reluctant turning to specialized research institutions for professional evaluation. The Ministry of Economy is the first and the only government agency to begin to heed to professional associations and unions since last year.

For example, we estimate that in Ukraine, there is over 100 million cubic meters of demolition waste. Official statistics data is obviously underestimated. When we ask officials where their data came from, we hear back: some "trendy" entity did the math. Where we begin to find out whether this entity has appropriately educated, trained, and experienced professionals who know how and what to calculate, it turns out that such are not there. These are just young, lively and creative gyus and girls. And the assessments made by such "experts" have recently begun to harm manufacturers quite a bit.

- What kind of harm? Clear this up

- The fact of the matter is that Western donors, at all kinds of conferences - in Lugano, Berlin, or Warsaw - ask our officials one simple question: on what basis do you calculate the costs you’re making public? The inability to provide clear answers cools off donors, so they are in no rush to provide us with reconstruction aid just now - for example, through investing in recovery and rebuilding of destroyed enterprises, improving their technological status or entering into partnerships. Instead, I think it would be much more fair to say that currently no one in the world - neither the lead think tanks, nor the CIA, nor the Mossad - is able to accurately calculate this all.

According to our assessments (which, in fact, is obvous to everyone), when reconstruction begins and there will be a heavy influx of customers with the money to pay for recovery and rebuilding work, the need for construction materials will increase many times. We have calculated that, in order to meet this demand, every enterprise in the industry that escaped being bombarded and looted by Russian invaders, will have to increase production by 200-300 per cent. This is the case with the development of quarries, the production of commercial concrete, construction mixtures, decorative materials, and dozens of other product categories. I therefore believe that there is a valid risk that a significant shortage will arise in many market segments after the war is over.

It is about the shortage of cement in the first place. In Soviet times, Ukraine used to produce more than 20 million tons of various cements every year. This fell to 10-11 million tons as of 2021. And last year, it seems, just 4.5 million tons were produced within the country. According to the calculations done by the UkrCement Association, as demand will be increasing, yearly production can potentially grow to reach 13 million tons. But this will not suffice to ensure an acceptably high rate of reconstruction.

Even so, major Western investors are coming to specific market segments. One such is the Irish company CRH, who intends to acquire several factories, get them modernized and retooled so that to offer the market a larger quantity and portolio of products. It is good that such manufacturers of international renown care about the Ukrainian consumer’s needs, thus setting a kind of "quality bar" for all suppliers. It’s important especially in the context of the scandals in the pre-war years where Turkish-produced cement, which did not meet any requirements or quality standards, was coming to Ukraine in great amounts at dumped prices. That said, Turkey produces up to 100 million tons of cement, ten times more than we do. After last year's catastrophic earthquakes, almost everything that is currently manufactured at Turkish factories is consumed inside the country. But once a major reconstruction gets underway, Turkish, Romanian, and even Chinese cement producers will seek a part in it. We believe that it is domestic construction materials that should make up the prime resource for Ukrainian reconstruction. After all, this, among other things, is about the use of domestic raw materials, the development of mining operations, payment of all the taxes within the country, and, finally, about the overall support for the economy and the social security sector.

Ukraine is lacking three to four factories with a yearly capacity of 25M m² of window glass

There is currently a shortage on the domestic market for window glass. After all, window glass is not produced in Ukraine at all. In the pre-war years, 85 percent of such products were imported from Belarus and Russia.

Moreover, there was a real bacchanalia on the market for glass: it was imported in massive quantities from countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan, and the imported products were made by standards that were inferior even to Soviet GOSTs. Like Ukraine will buy anything. A state-owned factory in Gomel, Belarus, still aspires to sell its glass products to Ukraine. And there are those who buy and import such products without feeling any responsibility.

Therefore, one of the most urgent challenges now is to establish domestic production of such products for use in recovery and reconstruction programs. Ukraine is lacking three to four factories, each with a capacity to produce 25 million square meters of thermopolished glass per year.  For the time being, any talk about the need to get these factories constructed in Ukraine is boiled down to nothing but meaningless declarations: the Turks and the Chinese both hoped to build something, while Ukrainian businessmen were planning for construction of a glass production line in Kyiv region... But until we see an operating factory, until a team comes that will be able to withstand production loads, we cannot say: dear Ukrainians, we will have window glass in sufficient quantities after the war is over...

- But what about other components involved in window glass production? As far as I can see, there are certain problems with this as well. I know that Ukraine is furnished for domestic production of window profiles by 60-70%, fittings by 50%, and remote frames by 30-40%, but there is almost zero production of sealants...

- Given the current pace of recovery and reconstruction, PVC profiles and other components are produced in sufficient qualtities. Moreover, we, amid war, strange as it may be, have boosted the export of window systems. After all, they are no worse than Polish ones, even better and cheaper. That is why even Germany, France, and the United Kingdom started buying such products from Ukraine. Our manufacturers are seeking to gain a foothold in the EU market, and so they, unlike some of the competitors, are truly honest with European customers and consumers. Whereas our systems are labeled "Heat resistant to A-3 standard", they really meet the stated parameters, unlike similar products of some other manufacturers, who often overestimate this characteristic in the documentation.

Regarding the domestic market, beginning in 2022, most of the manufacturers ceased to work for the storage, but instead focused on immediate customer needs. But in an industry such ours, there are production lines that are difficult to stop or restart based on the presence or absence of orders. For example, in the manufacture of ceramic tiles or ceramic bricks, the oven needs to be preheated for a very long time. There is no such thing as electricity supply is turned off for two hours, then turned on again, and the line restarts is work immediately. The oven has to heat up. But what if at this moment the electricity supply stops again and gas is not supplied to the furnace?... Such examples are numerous. In other words, we are facing lots of technological challenges.  Now we are thinking over how to get them minimized.

- What’s the situation like with other building materials? What do we produce in abundance, and what production capacities need to be urgently increased, so that their absence does not have impact that will slow down reconstruction later on?

- Basalt insulators and ceramic tiles will likely be in sufficient supply, given that Ukrainian manufacturers have been actively exporting these products recently. By the way, in 2021, our produced tiles made of Ukrainian white clay gained a significant portion of the UK and EU markets, having taken over parts of market shares of Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian manufacturers. And if it were not for the war... It’s a pity that the high-tech ceramic tile factory Zeus Ceramica outside of Donetsk has been utterly destroyed by the enemy...

We will have a sufficient supply of plasterboard and aerated concrete. There has always been pretty fierce competition on the market for the latter product. So we even had to curtail part of production capacities as the demand was falling due to the coronavirus pandemic.  If the demand for this material increases, it will be possible to engage four or five more factories that have been temporarily idle. But it’s a question whether it will be possible to tackle the problem of staffing, which is becoming increasingly pressing.

We are going to have a sufficient supply of own-produced electric cables, providing there will be no new significant damages to production capacities. However, there have always been problems with switchboards, batteries, and transformers. I know from my colleagues at the Ukrainian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, that some reputable investors, in particular the Hitachi Corporation, are planning to invest large amounts of money in the construction of a factory that will meet our needs in electrical equipment. Indeed, we are waiting for European manufacturers as well.

We are currently trying to convince potential investors that it’s potentially very profitable to invest in Ukraine. One may have no intention to build a factory out here amid war, but start at least by purchasing a plot of land or negotiating with industrial parks, make calculations on specific projects or architectural solutions, get permits for connection to networks.

That’s to say, preparatory work should be started immediately. Because when the "starting whistle" blows and everyone begins doing it, you may be late to do so. It can already be said for sure that at least 1,700 Polish companies stand ready to enter Ukraine just on the first day after the war ends.

- In order to have a sufficient supply of cement and concrete, new factories need to be constructed, or will it suffice to get the existing capacities retooled and modernized?

- New ones, particularly in Eastern Ukraine. In fact, there are no house-making factories or cement production capacities left in the eastern part of Ukraine. The factory in Balakliya, Kharkiv Oblast, was facing troubles even before the war started, and it has suffered a significant damage from the Russian invasion. For the time being, the region has on its soil still operating enterprises producing bricks and roofing materials. But the front line is in very close vicinity. We believe that everything will pass, but their production capacities will not suffice the needs of recovery and reconstruction. Enterprises located in Poltava Oblast, Cherkasy Oblast, and in the eastern areas of Kyiv Oblast don’t have sufficient capacities either. The government should therefore prepare a specific program for establishing building materials production capacities in regions on the east bank of the Dnieper.

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ON SPECIFICS OF THE EXPORT/IMPORT OF RAW COMMODITIES AND BUILDING MATERIALS

- Is everything okay now with the regulation of the industry? Can it be that possible miscalculations will evolve into problems for reconstruction later on?

- Problems arising from the lack of proper control over the import of building materials seem to be over. Let me remind you that, in 2022, foreign-manufactured products disguised as critical imports began coming to the country without any limits or duties paid. As a result, Ukrainian manufacturers of PVC and profiles for window systems have narrowly avoided bankruptcy. Thank God, most of the capacities have been recovered.

In addition, procedures for the importation of lots of products into Ukraine have been simplified due to the industrial visa waiver. When you trade in cement, for example, importing it by full trains, the customs office only checks the compliance of the documents, which state "cement in bulk" without giving any other details. The absence of unnecessary regulations seems to be particularly satisfying. But this only works with reliable, thruthful suppliers. But, unfortunately, not all of them are like such. It is therefore important that, starting this year, market supervision should be made a little bit tougher, that there should begin to be introduced checks of whether a brand of cement meets the stated one, or whether low-quality products are imported under the guise of elite brands, as often happened before.

But the inventors of illicit customs plots are obviously not sleeping, resorting to new frauds that harm consumers, the state, and domestic producers, who find it difficult to compete with those who do not follow any rules. This also affects the industry’s overall health. Everyone is anticipating the start of the construction season. It has started recently. But the industry hasn’t yet seen any significant increase in orders for construction materials. Last year saw some winning reports: in Ukraine, they say, sales of new apartments in modern residential compounds have increased. But in fact, this is mainly about those housing estates that had been 90-95% ready before the war began. In other words, a small amount of building materials, say, window glass or electric cables was required to get this housing ready for commissioning. But there is no increase in demand for commercial concrete, for example. Mixers no longer stand, as before, in queues of 20-50 vehicles, waiting for permission to enter construction sites. Piles are not hammered almost anywhere, and the demand for metal fittings has plummeted. And this at the time where production capacities for such products have significantly decreased due to the war.

But as soon as the demand grows, metal fittings can also fall into deficit category. Therefore, we are discussing with the Union members the potentiality of replacing some of the "classical" materials with composite fittings. That’s to say, our common "troubles" simultaneously open up new opportunities for domestic inventors, for industry adoption and mastery of the latest Ukrainian scientific developments and technologies.

- In which way can Ukrainian recovery and reconstruction affect the domestic export of raw commodities? Glass production is illustrative in this context. Before the war, 90 percent of the export of quartz sand was accounted for by the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus. Now these flows have been redirected to other markets. There is a risk that, with the improvement of logistics capabilities after the end of war, exports will only increase, while the added value will be produced elsewhere. Maybe Ukraine should regulate the export of raw commodities involved in the production of building materials?

- No. I think we will be such a "sweet spot" market that, on the contrary, construction lines will be relocated here, closer to local raw materials. There will be seen a very large influx of companies - especially from Poland and Germany – wishing to build new production lines here in Ukraine. Because it is more profitable to obtain, for example, lime from Chernihiv region and process it somewhere nearby, than to transport it from a location outside of Warsaw or from the outskirts of Sofia, or to transport it there from us, and then return the finished products. After all, logistics drives up an exorbitant price. It will be much more profitable to build a new factory somewhere in areas liberated from enemy occupation, where there is a significant concentration of facilities bound for recovery and reconstruction. Take Mariupol, for example. There are half a million people residing out there, and absolutely everything needed cannot be brought there by sea from Turkey. Mykolayiv, I’m convinced, also needs to get its local production capacities boosted. After all, this, among other things, is about high-paying jobs, for veterans among others.

And if a certain portion of raw commodities export remains as it is, I think it is not worth worrying too much about it. Ukraine has enormous reserves of minerals for the construction industry. We are ranked fourth in the world in this respect. We have everything: sand, lime, and granite rubble. The only thing we lack is modern factories.

In this context, I will mention the problem that we are trying to solve together with specialized research organizations. This is about ensuring the highest possible level of robotization and mechanization of both the building materials production processes and the construction processes as such. We are exploring the possibility of producing home construction kits in order to reduce by three- to four-fold the usage of fittings, concrete, and cement, and most importantly, to reduce the number of people involved in the construction industry. After all, where there is monolithic frame construction, you will not see less than 60 workers on each site. Currently, Ukraine doesn’t have enough human resources for this and, unfortunately, will probably not have in the near term. According to trade unions, more than 200,000 people had been employed in the construction industry - on construction sites and factories – in the years before the Great War broke out. Some fifty thousand of them are now fighting at the front line. That is, the industry has lost almost 30 per cent of its workforce. Women work at factories alongside men, and part of them have now gone abroad.

On average, there were 245-260 workers employed at a factory manufacturing concrete products. Now it is good if 45 of them left. We hope that most of those people who have been mobilized for the war will return to their workplaces, safe and sound. But, unfortunately, many will come from the frontline with disabilities. The way to get them involved back into production processes is by training them how to handle the latest robotic mechanized systems, where a person on a cart in a workshop, pressing several buttons to input special production codes, or even working from home, can remotely control the process. The modern civilizational model, digitalization make it possible to get even disabled people involved into complicated and complex production processes.

 - By the way, what’s the situation like with the production and use of ready-made housing kits? As I can see it, the scope of their use in Ukraine is so far limited to low-rise buildings?

- Houses of 40-50 square meters are in high demand in the country. This is a kind of small architectural form, up to two floors, which is made at a factory fully ready to be installated: cables are laid, sockets are inserted, and plumbing is in place. In other words, the house just needs to be brought to the site with a pre-cast concrete foundation or hammered piles, installed in place and connected to communications. The British and Germans are entering Ukraine with their technologies, but there are our own technological developments as well... And this is good for the locations where funds for rapid reconstruction are lacking. Obviously enough, it is difficult for the government to immediately recover and rebuild a settlement of 1,000-1,200 households destroyed by the enemy. Instead, one can order houses from a manufacturer, make and install them all, and this will take a maximum of six to twelve months. If such housing is built by the government, a person -- a young specialist or a temporarily displaced person -- will be able to come to this village and receive the keys to the house from a local authority just on very same day. This, among other things, will encourage the Ukrainians who exited the country to get back home immediately after the war is over.

At the same time, it is also necessary to think about where these people will work. This is not necessarily about the agricultural sector, because the farming industry is currently being rapidly automated and robotized, and in 10-15 years millions of agrarians will not be needed in Ukraine. In order to ensure employment in little settlements, it is necessary to create small businesses out there. And the government should think it over,  right now – choose a site to accommodate a house making factory, select a technology park where to set up a production line for, say, window systems... And, by the way, there should be no fear of modern panel-block construction. After all, its quality is differing. I don't want to advertise directly here, but in Kyiv there is a house-making factory that manufactures panel-block houses of its own design. It has built such a project in a settelemnt outside of Kyiv, next to a brick five-storey Khrushchev house. The enemy fired mortars at the location. The brick building was gutted by fire, leaving dead casualties. But the panel-block building escaped damage from direct hits. To be more precise, such panel-block construction can be of high quality, and such buildings can be long lasting.

The only thing we need to understand is that we need to improve state building regulations, we need to more carefully supervise the construction process at all stages - starting from the production of materials and components and ending with the commissioning of finished projects. In Europe, each building structure is marked with special labels or QR codes, thus enabling the complete process, from the workshop to on-site installation to be checked and traced. We have not yet reached this, but we must proceed towards this end. After all, where there is government funding involved, there are crooked foremen and "thuthful" contractors who will seek to get profit from this. Let’s not make it easy for them. Some people are saying: digitalization will not solve this all. It’s my belief that this can be solved where the goal is set correctly and moved towards, step by step.

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WHAT TO DO WITH HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF TONS OF CONSTRUCTION GARBAGE

- Here I would like to question you about the potential for processing construction trash, which has accumulated in the tens or even hundreds of millions of tons in Ukraine. How can it be put to good use? Can such processing bring a potential profit or, rather, a headache?

- Unfortunately, for the time being it is the latter. This is a headache for businesses and for the government as well. The fact is that the Ministry of Environment is still reluctant to issue special permits for such processing. There could have been thousands of businesses authorized to collect construction garbage, transport it, separate it by materials and then process it, but there are just seven or eight such businesses here in Ukraine. This is one thing. Second, we have no state standards that would regulate what to do with this debris. Therefore, everything that is most valuable is stolen, and the rubble, shall we say, "remains on the balance." I will take Kyiv region as an example. The garbage left after clearing the rubble out there was transported to more than 30 sites, small landfills. And later they began to notice that metal trash actually disappeared – men who know what and where can be sold for scrap came and took everything away. The government and the owners of this garbage have lost from this. Then the men picked out the glass (thank God, there are factories in Ukraine that process broken window glass into glass containers and mono-raw material (shredded glass), which is exported to the European Union. Then large and medium-sized pieces of concrete rubble began to disappear from the landfills, because we have garden societies, which need the rubble to fill driveways, etc. But nobody wants fragments of slate, because it contains harmful asbestos. The same is with electric cables: copper and aluminum are taken away and sold, and what remains of cable insulation is left on the site as a pile of garbage that no one wants. Even the remains of building materials that were crushed at the landfills are collected and taken away by people in buckets and wheelbarrows to be used for filling road holes or for some other purposes. That is why we are looking for international donors that would help state research institutions develop national programs on waste recycling – that is, the conversion of used materials into new products. Such an experience already exists. For example, up to a third of broken bricks are used in the production of side (non-bearing) wall panels. In Austria, there is a program under which up to 90 percent of concrete rubble is recycled and used in the manufacture of new materials. Another thing is that Austrian-made concrete has always been higher in quality, and, secondly, in Europe, no one steals "what is left abandoned" on a landfill site. After all, in the EU, all recycling processes rest on a scientific ground, and everything is checked and certified. Whereas in Ukraine there is no laboratory certified by Brussels which could verify that recycling products are contained in some or other construction product manufactured with government or donor funding. But in the absence of said regulation, no one will give us money for reconstruction. That's why I publicly appeal to building-industry businesses: don't hope that you can go to [online public procurement platform] Prozorro and win a contract by just offering the best price. Each contract will involve the use of a certain percentage of recycled materials. And you will have to prove that you actually used recycled construction garbage in a project, and to reveal from which landfill it was taken away. And if checks by on-site European laboratories find out that the data you provided is untrue, then you are in for a grand trouble involving demands for the return of donated funds, plus fines, and the removal of specific Ukrainian legal entities from reconstruction programs.

We know that it is possible to produce more than 30 types of building materials either with a very significant content of recycled raw materials, or made entirely from such materials. Glass, for example, can be fully recycled. Lime can be processed into plasterboard. Basalt wool, a certain proportion of it, can be used in newly produced sheets. Used concrete can be a filler in new products...

- And what about the safety of building materials recycled from used ones?

- This problem is very acute when it comes to concrete processing. Soviet GOSTs allowed 10 percent of fresh concrete production waste - rejected products - to be crushed and used as a filler. This is one story. This waste material that is residual in concrete production keeps the qualities of newly made concrete. Where a building has stood for 50-60 years, no one will be able to assess "by eye" what happened to that concrete. Tests for toxicity and radiation will need to be conducted. Where a building was destroyed by a missile, it can be hexane there, and radioactive particles can also be there. Chances of the debris being processed are higher where there was a hit by a more conventional projectile. Therefore, there is need for theoretical and practical developments in this domain, but the government, unfortunately, cannot afford money for this purpose. But truth to be told, our international partners at the UN organizations announced the intention to sponsor five programs to develop recipes for the processing of Ukrainian construction materials. This requires a scientific approach and the adaptation of the global recycling experience, European and international norms and standards to Ukrainian realities. After all, one can mess things up by just translating someone else's manuals through Google Translate. So we are hopeful that there will be organized public discourse on that issue. The government would be well advised to create a kind of consortium gathering scientists, researchers, as well as Ukrainian statesmen in order to develop a strategy and step-by-step measures to be used in construction garbage processing, so that we do not contaminate Ukraine with huge piles of trash.  

- In my understanding, processing will be more expensive than producing new materials. But if we care about environmental protection, we cannot do without recycling.

 - Of course, we well understand that these materials will be 20-30 percent more expensive to manufacture, because processing involves a lot of logistics and manual labor used in separating rubble by materials. Grinding, most especially very fine grinding takes significant costs too. So it comes to reason that it cannot be cheaper than bringing a large batch of raw materials from a quarry and immediately processing it. Therefore, in absence of government incentives, manufacturers who are ready and willing to get engaged in the recycling business will never be able to succeed. At the first stage, the government should at least arrange with the European Union to set up several certified laboratories in our country.

- Should we begin exploring recycling projects right now, without waiting for the war to end?

- This should have been done last year. As you may know, the necessary materials will take from five to nine months to find. It will take visits to landfills nearby to collect samples, then grind them into different fractions, make the necessary products, check them for pressure, fire safety, and thermal conductivity, and verify lots of other characteristics. Even at the research stage, we are talking about a huge expenditure of electricity and laboratory investigations... Then we will need to identify a field of application for this material, to find out where it can be used safely. Next is to get the opinion of an independent laboratory, so that it does not happen that some radioactive elements from the rocket get into a maternity clinic or a hospital. Recycled material must be double-checked. We believe that Ukrainians do deserve to have really good building materials meeting European and world quality standards without fearing that something may suddenly start falling from the ceiling on their heads because someone used the wrong brand of cement during construction. In the pre-war years, up to 40 percent of materials used on large construction sites were counterfeit or smuggled. There was little talk about this, because it was profitable for some people to bring it all from Belarus or Transnistria by the hundreds of thousands of tons and cubic meters. Those materials were used in government-funded construction projects without any certification or with fake authorization documents. The risk of this reoccurring as large-scale reconstruction effort begins is huge. This situation has to be tackled. I believe that the war will help get all of these gaps closed.

The same goes for the retail trade in building materials. If one goes to a building materials market in a European country and buy 400 grade cement, the bag will contain exactly that grade of cement, not the 200 grade cement poured into it by a manufacturer (legal or illegal) just because he thought it more profitable. Furthermore to this, in Europe, manufacturers pack construction mixtures in valve bags. In Ukraine, primarily paper bags are used for packing cement. The result is that the content of the package does not breathe, it can get lumped... To put it briefly, we are facing a large amount of work on quality issues.

Vladyslav Obukh, Kyiv

Photo courtesy of Yulia Ovsyannikova

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