Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with his Ukrainian counterpart on Monday and raised the thorny issue of human rights and the importance of democracy.

Harper flew into Kyiv on Monday to meet with President Viktor Yanukovych, who has been accused of trying to control the media and intimidate dissenters.

After the meeting, Harper said he didn't shy away from talking about those issues, but declined to go into detail.

"I raised those matters and raised them both generally and in some detail with President Yanukovych," Harper said at a joint news conference.

"I won't get into that into any more detail, other than to say I appreciate the president's firm commitments publicly in terms of respect of those critical freedoms."

Harper's entire visit seems designed to remind Ukraine -- and its leader -- of its standing as a democratic nation.

Yanukovych is seen as being pro-Moscow and has faced accusations of attempting to control national media and using police to crack down on historians, academics and students.

Harper began his day by visiting a memorial set up in remembrance of an estimated 10 million Ukrainians who starved to death at the hands of Josef Stalin in the 1930s

"I hope, always, that it will remind the Ukrainian people of the importance of their freedom, their democracy and their independence and of the necessity of always defending those things," Harper said.

He laid a symbolic jar of grain at the monument and appeared emotional during the presentation.

Canada considers the event, known as Holodomor, to be a genocide. But Yanukovych chose his words carefully, instead referring to it as a "horrible event in the history of the Ukrainian people and in the history of our neighbouring peoples."

Later in the day, after meeting with opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, Harper once again drove home his point.

"Our presence here and our meeting symbolizes the importance of democracy," he said, before going on to meetings with those who have allegedly faced state intimidation due to their political views.

Canada, which is in free-trade talks with Ukraine, would like to exert a Western influence to counteract that of Russia.

Ties with Moscow

Yanukovych has had close ties with Moscow in the past and has worked hard to shed that image and present his country as closer to the European Union than to Russia and the East.

Yanukovych played a central role in the Orange Revolution in 2004-2005 following national presidential elections. Yanukovych was declared the winner of the race, which included widespread accusations of voter intimidation, corruption and fraud.

Weeks of protests and demonstrations followed, and eventually the result was overturned and a re-vote was called, which saw Viktor Yushchenko declared the winner.

Yanukovych then staged a comeback of sorts to win the 2010 presidential election -- one international observers said had no significant democratic flaws.

Youth exchange agreement

During the discussions Monday, the two leaders signed a memorandum of understanding that would allow Canadian and Ukrainian citizens between 18 and 35 to travel and work for up to one year in each other's countries.

"Our two countries have strong ties underpinned by the more than 1.2 million Ukrainian descendants living in Canada today," Harper said in a release.

"Today's agreement will create exciting work and travel opportunities for our youth, forging new bonds between our countries for generations to come."

Harper flew to Kyiv from Switzerland, where he was attending a biennial summit of Francophonie nations over the weekend.