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mark mackinnon

A member of a local self-defense unit mans a checkpoint on the highway between Kherson and Simferopol in the town of Tsyurupinsk, Ukraine's region adjacent to Crimea, March 13, 2014.VALENTYN OGIRENKO/Reuters

For now, Sergei Kostinsky is staying in Crimea. But with the horizon clouding and many of his friends packing to leave this contested place, he isn't sure how much longer he'll be saying that.

The 32-year-old director of a marketing firm – a member of this region's worried middle-class intelligentsia – has watched with dismay as the peninsula he was born in drifts inevitably away from Ukraine, a country he loves, toward union with Russia, a country he feels little affection for or optimism about.

On Sunday, the fate of Crimea's two million residents will be decided in a referendum that most here believe can only have one result: an overwhelming mandate for this Russian-speaking peninsula to break from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation.

There's a calm acceptance of that fact here, with few displays of pro- or anti-Russia sentiment on the streets here Thursday, just two days before a referendum that will decide this region's future. That tranquil façade slipped a bit, however, as a rumour spread that local banks were running low on cash, causing long lineups at bank machines around the peninsula.

An overwhelming number of the people The Globe and Mail has spoken to here in recent days and weeks say they do indeed prefer President Vladimir Putin's Russia to the new government in Kiev. But there are, of course, dissenters. And many of them are preparing to leave.

"We have a joke here: Who wins if Crimea becomes part of Russia? The pensioners, the civil servants and the military. Who loses? The creative class, the middle class," Mr. Kostinsky sighs.

It's not a very funny joke, and Mr. Kostinsky doesn't break a smile as he tells it because his friends and colleagues are the ones heading for the exit. "There are people who play important roles in my life – I won't say how many – but for them the idea of life here [after Sunday's referendum] is intolerable."

Mr. Kostinsky says part of the attraction of moving somewhere else in Ukraine is the chance to participate in the nation-building project that has been launched during the revolution last month that deposed the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych. "I get pressure from colleagues in Kiev and Lviv for me to leave Crimea. They say 'We need you here. We have a country to build.' … But I will stay here as long as possible. Until it becomes dangerous."

The number of Crimeans who are leaving is only a trickle, mostly the pro-Western intelligentsia, the people who admit to having cheered the fall of Mr. Yanukovych and the rise of the new government in Kiev.

The wide majority of Crimeans seem to accept the narrative that's been offered to them on Russian television channels: The uprising in Kiev was sponsored by Western governments, who are in league with "fascist" Ukrainian nationalists. The rights of Russian speakers are under assault in this new Ukraine. Only Moscow can protect them.

"Crimeans want to have safety. They are Russians, most of them. Crimea was part of Russia [before the fall of the Soviet Union] and they feel they are Russian. They see nothing good done for them by the Ukrainian authorities," said Oleg Gabriyelyan, rector of the Crimean University of Culture, Arts and Tourism, and a regular commentator on local television stations.

Some worry that having been on the wrong side of such a lopsided and angry debate could become dangerous soon after the referendum, when Russia's laws apply here. "I don't see my future in Russia. I see Russia has a very bad situation with human rights and liberties. It's not the kind of environment I want to live my life in," said Konstantin Tupikov, a 26-year-old travel agent who said he has made plans to move to Serbia shortly after the referendum.

The most outspoken group against Crimea's reunion with Russia has been the peninsula's 250,000-strong population of Crimean Tatars, who remember Russian rule as a time of persecution and internal exile.

The Mejlis, the largest Crimean Tatar organization, has called for its members to boycott Sunday's referendum on the grounds that the government in Kiev has said it's an illegal plebiscite. A poll on Crimean Tatar television Thursday showed that more than 90 per cent of some 3,000 respondents were against joining Russia.

Ali Khamzin, head of foreign relations for the Mejlis, said the organization knows of about 200 or 300 Crimean Tatars who have left ahead of the referendum, most of them members of the Hizb ut-Tahrir movement that Russia – but not Ukraine – considers a "terrorist" organization.

But most Crimean Tatars say they'll remain here, whatever comes next.

"We don't want to live here if it becomes part of Russia, but we have nowhere else to go," said Ayder, a 28-year-old working as volunteer security at the tense Mejlis office in Simferopol, where he and half a dozen other men were stationed to prevent "provocations." Fearing trouble, he refused to give his last name. "This is our home," he said.

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