In swap of bizarre gifts, US and Russia find light moment during grim Syrian peace talks

For some watchers of international diplomacy, the somber road to Syrian peace was overrun Monday by potatoes and furry pink hats.

A swapping of delegation gifts between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov served as a distraction from predictions of elusive success in Syria.

The usually stern-faced Lavrov came to the meeting armed with at least two ushankas, a traditional Russian fur hat with earflaps that tie to the top of the hat. Both hats went to women on Kerry's press staff — including a bubblegum-pink one for State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

The more bizarre bout of diplomacy came over a pair of Idaho potatoes.

After pictures of Kerry handing Lavrov the tubers during talks Monday morning surfaced on the Web, reporters pressed both leaders for an explanation hours later.

Kerry quickly sought to disavow any deep diplomatic meaning from the spuds, explaining that he was in Idaho over the holidays when he and Lavrov spoke by phone. The Russian, it seemed, associated Idaho with potatoes.

"He told me he's not going to make vodka. He's going to eat them," Kerry said of Lavrov, who was next to him at an otherwise grim news conference on militant threats to humanitarian aid for Syria.

Kerry added: "I really want to clarify: There's no hidden meaning. There's no metaphor. There's no symbolic anything. ... He recalled the Idaho potatoes as being something that he knew of, so I thought I would surprise him and bring him some good Idaho potatoes."

The mention of vodka put Lavrov on a brief rhetorical bender.

"In Poland, they make vodka from potatoes," Lavrov said. "I know this. But that's in Poland."

Kerry tried to steer the discussion back to Iran or Syria, but Lavrov plowed on.

"We used to do this in the Soviet Union," he said. "Now we try to do it from wheat."

A few minutes later, Lavrov awkwardly tried to tie the potato diplomacy to the Syrian negotiations.

"The specific potato which John handed to me has the shape which makes it possible to insert potato in the carrot-and-stick expression," he said to laughter from reporters. "So it could be used differently."


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