Sixteen years ago, Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky was welcomed into the White House as a heroic political prisoner and defender of human rights. Today, the country that persecuted him for "slandering the Soviet state" no longer exists -- he's even been invited back by Boris Yeltsin himself -- but he remains a protester at heart, an outsider even when given an insider's access.

Bukovsky spent 11 years in the KGB's prison camps and mental hospitals before being exchanged for a jailed Chilean Communist leader at the end of 1976. Early the next year he met with President Carter. Barely 34, Bukovsky was already celebrated in the West as one of a small group of Russians who had put their lives on the line by speaking out in defense of free speech and human rights. The memoir he wrote of his life as a political prisoner, published two years later, reportedly brought an advance of $250,000.

This week Bukovsky, now based in Cambridge, England, and continuing to write and publish books, was back in Washington to meet with conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. When he held a news conference at Russia House, a consulting firm run by his high school friend Edward Lozansky, all of five reporters showed up to hear his views on tomorrow's Russian parliamentary elections and constitutional referendum.

At 50, gray-haired and tweedy, Bukovsky no longer resembles the slender youth who demonstrated against the arrests of dissident writers, organized a poetry-reading protest in a Moscow square and smuggled out details of how the KGB drugged political prisoners in Soviet asylums. His English is fluent, after years of studies in neurophysiology at Cambridge and Stanford, and he still has a lot to say. Since President Yeltsin invited him back in 1991 he has been revisiting Russia to lecture and meet with its politicians and writers, but he is incensed with the current regime as well.

Yeltsin, he says, is "a very indecisive fellow. ... He is not smart enough. ... His vision is very limited." Tomorrow's elections are "an insult to the intelligence." As for Yeltsin's new constitution, it is "completely ridiculous"; if Russian voters approve it as expected, Bukovsky announces, "I will return my Russian passport and relinquish my Russian citizenship." He now holds both British and Russian citizenship.

What Bukovsky finds most offensive about the new constitution is Article 81.2, which would require presidential candidates to have lived in Russia for the preceding 10 years.

"This clause is obviously targeted against us," he declares -- he means prominent dissidents such as himself and Alexander Solzhenitsyn who were forced to leave Russia against their will -- to keep them from challenging Yeltsin for reelection. "It is outrageous!

"Obviously," Bukovsky continues, warming to his subject, "the people around him {Yeltsin} want to secure a continuation of power. They have no moral right whatsoever to be where they are -- they are basically impostors! ... It is obvious the country is still in the hands of the nomenklatura" -- the Communist elite.

After years of battling for lofty goals, the crusader has reached the painful decision that little has changed. The KGB terror has ended, but Moscow is now in the hands of a "corrupt elite." Is this what he suffered for all those years in Leonid Brezhnev's gulag?

Last summer, Bukovsky says, members of Moscow's city council asked him to run for mayor because he is not corrupt. He declined, he explains, because it would take "at least 6,000 to 10,000 very smart, energetic people" to change the system. Without them, he says, he "would only become a smoke screen for corruption."

Yeltsin, he concedes, "was honest enough to appreciate that what was done {under communism} was a crime." In April Bukovsky went to Russia to campaign for a vote in the referendum that asked Russians to choose between the president's program and the parliament. But Yeltsin is not a man to rule, Bukovsky contends; "the people around him will be making decisions," and "most of them are very corrupt."

"The people," Bukovsky says into the Voice of America reporter's microphone, "must do something dramatic or they will drown in a nightmare of corruption... . They are turning into Nigeria."