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mark mackinnon

Ukrainian women hold an Ukrainian national flag with EU stars while releasing birds as a symbol of peace after singing of the national anthem during an anti-war protest in front of a monument of Duke de Richelieu in the Black Sea port of Odessa, Ukraine, Sunday, March 9, 2014. The monument to the prominent French statesman de Richelieu, in background, marks the respect he is accorded in the area after he was appointed to office by Russian Czar Alexander I in 1803 to rule as governor in the New Russian region including Odessa.Sergei Poliakov/The Associated Press

The offices of Odessa's renowned Privilege law firm normally buzz with the legal dealings of this city's richer few. But in a port city rife with intrigue and talk of civil war, the boardroom of Privilege is these days also the headquarters of a last-ditch, grassroots push for peace and a united Ukraine.

There aren't many tools left in the hands of those seeking both of those things as the clock ticks down to Sunday's referendum in Crimea, which will almost certainly see the peninsula – already under the de facto control of the Russian military – vote to join the Russian Federation. The days that follow could see Moscow accept Crimea's application to accede, which would put the Ukrainian soldiers still based on the peninsula in a no-man's land, defending bases that some will say are no longer in Ukraine.

Many worry that open warfare could follow, or a fresh effort to stir up separatist sentiment in other parts of Russian-speaking Ukraine outside of Crimea, such as this city built to be the southern gateway of Catherine the Great's empire.

The tactics adopted by the dozen lawyers, entrepreneurs and artists who gather nightly in the Privilege law office seem unlikely to change any of that. They published a "Peace Manifesto" Monday night on Facebook, and decided to invite many of Russia's and Ukraine's top musicians to an anti-war concert in Odessa on the eve of the Crimea vote. But the hastily assembled group – who were well-enough connected to have the Minister of Culture's office join their conversation from Kiev via Skype – felt the need to do what they could, while they could.

"If we don't stop this," said lawyer Alexandr Pogorilyy, referring to the angry Russians-versus-Ukrainians narrative that has consumed the country in recent weeks, "the world will go back to 1914."

Many in Odessa, a normally cheerful city famous for the good humour of its residents, now speak in such apocalyptic terms. A few hours' drive from Crimea – and deeply divided over what's happening there – Odessa worries it will be the next front line. Either in a peaceful struggle, as pro-Russian provocateurs move here after their success in Crimea, or in a violent one if fighting breaks out after the referendum.

"The worst-case scenario is that two-thirds of the people in Odessa die," said Dmitry Trakhtengerts, the director of a local human-resources firm, reflecting the apocalyptic worries of residents. He predicted that if the Russian troops in Crimea put on their insignia and confronted the Ukrainian military there, the country would quickly be plunged into a conflict that could tear cities like Odessa apart.

In a reminder of how close conflict is, the flagship of Ukraine's tiny navy, the frigate Hetman Sahaidachny, is now anchored in Odessa. It was at sea when more than half of Ukraine's 25 warships were blockaded in their Crimean harbours by Russia's much larger Black Sea Fleet.

"Soon, we might not be able to sit here peacefully drinking coffee," Mr. Trakhtengerts said. "Nobody wants war, but it could happen. We are playing with matches near a barrel of gunpowder."

Odessa still feels like the city Catherine the Great envisioned, a southern St. Petersburg. Residents speak Russian and think fondly of Russia, or did until recent events. The scenic waterfront is dominated by a statue of the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, who lived briefly here, and the 142-metre-long Potemkin Staircase that was immortalized in film by Sergei Eisenstein. The region's economy is dependent on the tens of thousands of Russian tourists who come every year to enjoy the region's sandy beaches and relatively balmy climate.

But unlike Crimea, which only became part of Ukraine in 1954, the majority of Odessans are ethnic Ukrainians who have come to treasure their distance and independence from Moscow.

Still, there remain those who believe Odessa should never have been separated from Russia. A group of unknown men rushed into the regional administration building last week and raised the Russian flag over it. A larger crowd of supporters of the revolution in Kiev soon surrounded the building and forced the pro-Russian group to take down their flag in exchange for safe passage. But no one believes that's the end of the struggle for this part of Ukraine.

Every weekend, pro-European and pro-Russian protesters gather in different parts of Odessa to shout slogans for and against Russian President Vladimir Putin. There's very little dialogue between the two sides of the city.

"Odessa is divided half against half, and that's a problem," said Yuriy Tkachev, the editor of Timer, a pro-Russian website based in Odessa. "In [pro-Russian] Crimea or [pro-revolution cities] Lviv or Kiev, there is a stronger side and a weaker side. In Odessa, it's very difficult to say which side is stronger. That's why Odessa is one of the most sensitive points in Ukraine."

Mr. Tkachev said the best thing the new government in Kiev could do is move the country to some form of devolved federalism, allowing regions like Odessa to chart a more independent course that would include more rights for Russian-speakers. That idea is anathema to many Ukrainians, who see it as a vehicle to allow Russian-speaking regions to shake free of Kiev and move closer to Moscow, but Mr. Tkachev says federalism has become the country's least dangerous option. "The other way is Russian tanks," he warned.

Mr. Tkachev says he once thought he would welcome the idea of Odessa returning to the Russian fold. But after seeing the angry reaction in Ukraine to the Russian military's move into Crimea, he said he now realizes this city could be torn apart by whatever comes next.

"The fault line runs through families and through friendships," he said. "No one wants to fight with their neighbours, their brothers."

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