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Upcoming Crimea referendum kindles confidence and trepidation

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — Men hawk Russian tricolor flags to drivers at traffic lights on the streets of the Crimean capital. Minivans emblazoned with election slogans belt out patriotic songs. A World War II bunker has become a drop-off point for people to donate blankets and canned food for armed militiamen who patrol the streets.

One of the two television stations allowed to broadcast in Crimea these days makes no secret of its allegiances: It stuffs the airwaves with clips that display the slogan ‘‘March 16: Together with Russia’’ while blaring the Russian national anthem. They promise higher pensions, higher salaries, and a better quality of life — within Russia’s embrace.

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Days before the Black Sea peninsula votes in a referendum on joining Russia, Crimea has slipped into a twilight of nationalist fervor, uncertainty, and trepidation.

For ethnic Russians, Sunday’s vote has been long coming, a chance to right what they see as a historic wrong. For the ethnic Ukrainians and Tatars who are the minority in Crimea, it is fear that dominates. They fear separation from Ukraine; they fear the loss of an identity that has always been vulnerable in Russian-dominated Crimea; and they fear outright attack from thugs who run around unchecked by the Kremlin-planted regional government.

In Crimea, momentum is clearly on the pro-Russian side.

Pamphlets and fliers urging a ‘‘Yes’’ vote circulated briskly on the streets of Simferopol and the historic naval city of Sevastopol. ‘‘As a part of a mighty multinational country our culture and traditions will be protected,’’ one read.

‘‘We’re ready to vote for [unification with] Russia,’’ said Svetlana Alexandrova, a 72-year-old retired translator. ‘‘Crimea is Russian, and this vote is just bringing us home again.’’

‘Crimea is Russian, and this vote is just bringing us home again.’

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In Sevastopol, which is home to both the Russian and the Ukrainian Black Sea fleets, people sneered at Western reporters, saying the West was spreading lies and supporting ‘‘fascism’’ in the new government in Kiev. Interviews with people walking around the city center revealed overwhelming support for uniting with Russia.

The ethnic Ukrainian concerns about violence seem justified by reports of sporadic beatings, nighttime abductions, and the beefed-up presence of Russian ultranationalists.

Tents belonging to the far-right Russia Unity are scattered through the city’s center, collecting donations for ‘‘self-defense forces’’ and serving tea and snacks to burly men wearing red armbands and to Cossacks in camouflage who guard the entrance to the regional parliament building. The government itself is run by a shadowy Kremlin protege nicknamed the ‘‘goblin’’ who has reported links to criminal gangs.

Crimea’s police department has warned people to be careful about showing passports to strangers — after reports circulated about unnamed people knocking on apartments and homes, asking to check passports needed to vote in the referendum, then either taking the passports or ripping them up if they showed the holder to be an ethnic Ukrainian.

Sunday’s referendum has been organized in the wake of last month’s ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych after months of protests. For many ethnic Russians, the new government in Kiev represents radical Ukrainian nationalism.

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