MOSCOW -- On Monday, everyone had to take Boris N. Yeltsin seriously because he had just been invited by Mikhail S. Gorbachev to sit in on a summit session with President Bush.
Yesterday, everyone really had to take Mr. Yeltsin seriously -- when he one-upped Mr. Gorbachev by not bothering to appear.
Mr. Gorbachev was playing the role of the conciliator by inviting the Russian president and portraying himself as above any petty squabbles the two might sometimes have.
Last night, Mr. Yeltsin said he saw the invitation somewhat differently -- as a chance for Mr. Gorbachev to use him as a convenient piece of window dressing.
"I believe this is something which dates back to the past traditions of the period of stagnation," Mr. Yeltsin said, referring to the era of Leonid I. Brezhnev's rule, "when we had mass audiences. Well, I don't think I fit into a voiceless mass audience."
Mr. Yeltsin, the most popular politician in the Soviet Union, has been holding himself up to the world as the leader of a major country -- the 150-million-strong Russian Federation -- ever since he was elected that republic's president by a landslide in June.
"Mr. Gorbachev meets with many delegations, and I don't feel I'm obliged to be a part of those negotiations," he told Cable News Network, "because those delegations also meet with me."
Indeed, Mr. Yeltsin already had an invitation to meet with Mr. Bush alone yesterday afternoon, and he did appear for that appointment. What he skipped was a lunch with the U.S. president, the Soviet president and Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan.
Mr. Bush, caught in the middle, commented only that he was glad to meet the Russian president because Mr. Yeltsin's visit to the United States right after his election had been "a big hit."
Spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said that Mr. Bush "is pursuing the need to establish better relations with the republics. This is not a choice between the center and the republics," he said.
Vitaly Ignatenko, Mr. Gorbachev's spokesman, would only say, somewhat cryptically, that Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Gorbachev had met Monday night and agreed that the meeting with Mr. Bush would happen the way it did.
Mr. Yeltsin said it was appropriate for him to meet Mr. Bush on an equal footing because "we are beginning to have direct contacts between Russia and the United States."
He also pointed out that he and Mr. Bush have the same policy toward the Baltic republics -- that they should be granted independence -- while Mr. Gorbachev is resisting their secession.
But Mr. Gorbachev may not have been entirely unhappy with his Monday night meeting with the head of the largest Soviet republic. At 3 a.m. yesterday, according to Mr. Yeltsin's spokesman, the two reached an agreement that could seal the new treaty binding the republics of the Soviet Union together.
Twice before, one side or the other has announced that an agreement was reached; both times, holes appeared over the issue of taxation.
Mr. Gorbachev wanted the central government to retain the power to tax, saying that it would not be much of a government otherwise. Mr. Yeltsin and the Ukrainian president, Leonid Kravchuk, wanted to give sole powers of taxation to the republics, which would then contribute funds to the central government as they saw fit.
Under the reported compromise, the republics would control the system of taxation but would pass along a fixed percentage to the central government.
The new treaty would presumably head off a plan reported by the Moscow newspaper Kommersant under which the 15 republics decided among themselves to split up both the Soviet Union's currency, gold and diamond reserves, and its $65 billion foreign debt. That plan, reported Monday, was already sinking out of sight yesterday as a bright idea that was utterly lacking in any mechanism for carrying it out.
That Mr. Gorbachev still would be up at 3 a.m. haggling with Mr. Yeltsin on the eve of his summit with Mr. Bush -- long after Mr. Bush had arrived in Moscow -- demonstrates just how much importance he places in securing a new charter for the Soviet Union -- important enough, even, that his spokesman, Mr. Ignatenko, seemed willing to shrug off Mr. Yeltsin's standing up his boss in front of the whole world just nine hours later.