When the Soviet Army withdrew from Georgia in the early 1990s, it left behind large stockpiles of outdated - and now unusable and dangerous - weapons and ammunition in military bases across the country. The OSCE has been working with the national authorities to dispose of these surpluses, which threaten human and environmental security in Georgia and the Caucasus.
"The potential for accidents in unloading, packing and transferring the material is great," says Lt. Col. Zbigniew Fec, OSCE co-ordinator of the ammunition recycling and destruction project. "The possibility of theft and criminal misuse is also a threat that cannot be ignored. And, if neglected, the munitions will degrade and become shock-sensitive over time."
Dismantling old equipment
The main storage facility is in Dedoplitskaro, a two-hour drive south-east from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. This is where DELTA, a specialized agency appointed by the national Government, dismantles old bombs, anti-aircraft shells, artillery and mortar ammunition, and other munitions.
DELTA carries out this work under a memorandum of understanding signed by the OSCE Mission to Georgia and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 2003. The agreement, which defines the roles of all parties involved, marked the beginning of joint efforts to eliminate the stockpiles of dangerous material.
With the financial support of countries such as Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Turkey and the United Kingdom, the project has now entered its third stage.
Lt. Col. Fec describes the joint effort: "We help by funding and supervising activities, while the Georgian authorities make available DELTA's technical expertise in destroying ammunition and reprocessing the military equipment into scrap metal, and explosives for civil engineering use.
"The first time we entered the Dedoplitskaro military base in October 2002, it looked like our goal might not be feasible," he adds. "Given the facility's condition, it would have been difficult for DELTA's team of experts to carry out their work safely and efficiently."
The first donation - some 100,000 euros - was therefore used to renovate and roof the main workshop and to install an electricity generator, marking the project's first stage. Further donations improved the workshop and provided for additional facilities during the second stage.
A dangerous job
"We now work in safer and more comfortable conditions," says Dato Supatashvili, a DELTA professional. "We have a dangerous job that requires great care when handling ammunition and precision when cutting shells open to take out the ballistic propellant and gunpowder."
The propellant - called "macaroni", although it looks more like bundles of brown spaghetti) - is mixed with other chemicals before being sold, while the metals are separated and auctioned off. The proceeds are then added to state revenue.
The Mission estimates that some 320 tons of ballistic propellant have been produced so far and some 50,000 shells have been dismantled or destroyed.
New TNT smelter
Emptying iron shells and bombs filled with trinitrotoluene (TNT) is part of the clean-up effort, but this is a difficult and expensive procedure that requires special equipment and technical expertise.
A further donation from Finland enabled the OSCE Mission to purchase TNT smelting equipment and renovate a building in which to house it. Following an open tender, the Ukrainian contractor Ukroboronservice delivered the equipment, and in January 2007 started training DELTA personnel on safe operating procedures.
"We have taught them the theory and safety procedures required to run a system that uses steam to smelt out the TNT from the warheads," explains Vladimir Filimonov, who led the first Ukroboronservice training team. "Another team will teach them the necessary practical operating skills."
The new equipment is environmentally-friendly because it recycles TNT-filled warheads instead of blowing them up, as was done in the past.
More help needed
Though much has already been done, the problem of large stocks of obsolete ammunition in Georgia still needs to be addressed. The infrastructure is now in an acceptable condition but there are still practical and technical issues that need to be resolved.
"Destroying or recycling the remaining stocks will only be possible through active co-operation with international donors," says Lt. Col. Fec. "We are therefore actively seeking donations to finance the next project, which will aim to reprocess 35,000 TNT-filled artillery warheads."
Activities carried out in this area are in line with commitments that OSCE participating states have made within the framework of the OSCE Forum for Security Co-operation.