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ROME – While the referendum over Crimea’s secession from Ukraine continues to make headlines worldwide, a much lower-profile poll for independence is gaining momentum in Italy: the vote for the breakaway of Venice.

Residents of the northern Italian region of Veneto – Venice being its main city – are voting this week on whether to secede from Italy and create their own independent and sovereign republic.

The Veneto is the former heartland of the powerful maritime Republic of Venice, the economic and trading power that lasted from the 7th to the 18th century. Today it’s Italy’s richest region, thanks to the wealth created by yearlong tourism and a strong industrial base.

“Since Veneto was annexed to Italy in the 19th century we have never felt fully Italian, as we have our own culture and traditions."

But ever since Veneto became part of Italy in 1866, resentment towards Rome has been growing steadily. Many in the region feel their wealth is unfairly squandered by the inefficient central government and that it is used to bankroll the poorer south. The referendum’s organizers say it’s time to cut the cord.

“Since Veneto was annexed to Italy in the 19th century we have never felt fully Italian, as we have our own culture and traditions,” Gianluca Busato, a leader of the referendum push, told NBC News.

“But the main reason behind our need for independence is socio-economic. Each year we pay Italy almost $100 billion in taxes, but $30 billion of it never makes it back in the form of services to the region. The government squanders our money! We are better off taking care of ourselves.”

The referendum is not politically binding, but organizers say a “yes” win would strengthen the case of their quest for independence. A recent poll found that almost 60 percent of Venetians are in favor of independence.

“The will of our people is like law to us. If 'yes' wins, as we expect, we will appoint 10 Venetians to write a road map to independence,” Busato said.

“We have the right to self-determination, as recognized by the United Nations," he added. "Seven of the 10 new members of the European Union have smaller populations than Veneto. If Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania can have a seat in the European Parliament, why can’t we?”

A gondola passes along the Grand Canal in front of the Rialto bridge in Venice on March 14, 2014.FABRIZIO BENSCH / Reuters

Pietro Piccinetti, who heads the “no” committee, tells NBC News the referendum is anachronistic, and dangerous for the region.

“Veneto can’t survive by itself,” said Piccinetti. “If entire nations these days struggle to cope with the economic crisis, what would happen to an independent region? It’s a contradiction.”

About 3.8 million residents of Veneto are eligible to vote online (on the website www.plebiscito.eu), via the phone or at one of the many polling stations set-up in the main cities of Venice, Treviso, Padua and Verona.

The final results will be announced after the polls close on Friday evening.

As many other regions in Italy, Veneto has its own dialect, traditions, cuisine and proud history. Should it manage to become independent, others may follow suit, threatening to break up Italy 150 years after its official unification.