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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Zubkov's First Trip Sweet for Penza

ria-novostiZubkov telling a girl in Penza on Wednesday that he brought her some candy.
New Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov made the first investment in his popularity Wednesday by buying chocolate for a pensioner and kindergarteners in Penza.

Zubkov visited Penza on his maiden trip as prime minister, and he said such visits would become standard during his time in office. If Wednesday's visit was any indication, Zubkov could soon approach the popularity of his first deputy prime ministers and possible presidential contenders Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev in opinion polls.

Before visiting the kindergarten, Zubkov stopped by a small grocery store and bought two bars and three boxes of chocolate, paying with 700 rubles from his pocket. He gave one bar to a retired woman standing near the counter and gave the other one to accompanying Agriculture Minister Alexei Gordeyev, instructing him to give it to the woman as a gift. Gordeyev complied.

The slim, gray-haired woman burst into a smile and said: "May God give you health! Good luck to you. That was so kind," in footage shown on Channel One television. She kissed both Zubkov and Gordeyev on the cheek.

At the kindergarten, Zubkov picked up a small girl and told her that he and Penza Governor Vasily Bochkaryov had brought some candies. There will be more of them because the governor has a lot of money, Zubkov said, RIA-Novosti reported.

Zubkov was not promoting chocolate but inspecting Penza before hearing a report on the regional economy from Bochkaryov at a Cabinet meeting Thursday.

He also said he would distribute powers among his five deputy prime ministers in the next two days and that there was no need to make any further changes to the government's structure.

At the kindergarten, he asked Bochkaryov to help the children, which the governor promised to do by buying new windows for a start.

Kicking off his visit, Zubkov traveled to a dairy farm outside Penza, 700 kilometers southeast of Moscow, living up to expectations that he will give agriculture a priority. Zubkov spent 18 years managing Soviet farms in a planned economy before moving on to a career as a Communist Party boss and later a federal financial officer.

In the middle of a cornfield in the village of Konstantinovka, he told Regional Development Minister Dmitry Kozak and Gordeyev to replace imports with domestic farm produce where possible.

"Everything needs to be planned, and you must see that the regions don't import what we can produce ourselves," Zubkov said, Interfax reported.

But Zubkov warned against a sweeping ban on foreign-grown produce.

He assured managers of the farm, called Konstantinovo, that milk prices were unlikely to fall and showed off his knowledge about milk production. When farm director Pavel Kozlov said his 5,000 cows produce 5,700 liters of milk every day, Zubkov observed that his farm yielded 7,500 liters in 1978. It was unclear, however, how large his farm was at the time.

Zubkov lamented low wages at the farm, where a milkmaid makes 5,000 rubles ($200) per month. "If a milkmaid were to get paid 30,000 rubles to 40,000 rubles, we would solve all the problems of milk production and supplies to the domestic market," he said.

In an unusual order, Zubkov later told the farm director to provide free dental services to combine drivers right on farm premises. In making the order at a meeting with regional business leaders and officials, he said he had noticed at the farm that many drivers had steel crowns.

He also stopped at an outdoor market, where he noted cheap meat prices and spoke with a customer, another retired woman. She complained about high house maintenance fees.

Hours later, Zubkov told reporters that the pension system had to undergo urgent changes to help retirees meet rising costs.

The televised remarks are likely to go down well with pensioners, who have long complained about their meager income, and boost Zubkov's popularity. A political unknown when Putin named him prime minister two weeks ago, Zubkov scored 4 percent in a nationwide poll of possible presidential candidates released Friday. He placed fifth, after Ivanov (34 percent), Medvedev (30 percent), Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov (15 percent) and Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky (11 percent). The poll, conducted by the independent Levada Center, had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.